It’s an easy thing to take for granted: One bar, open ’til 2 a.m., offering live music to folks with zero plans and a few bucks in their back pocket. Compared to the chaos of an ever-changing music industry where the rules change weekly and the algorithms are rigged against you, such a commodity might occasionally fade into the backdrop of hustle culture.But during its 35th year in business, there’s nothing about The Midway Cafethat should be overlooked.
For three and a half decades, the Jamaica Plain bar and live music venue has hosted bands, burlesque, and buzzed rounds of karaoke every night of the week. Well, that’s not entirely true. In the earlier days, the live entertainment was only six days a week, not seven.
Owner Jay Balerna says not much else has changed since 1987, making The Midway Cafe one of a few constants on JP’s bustling Washington Street. As the Greater Boston music scene has evolved over the decades, the independent venue remains eager to step in and offer a slice of nostalgia for simpler days, like when the venue could only fit 60 people, or before streams and social media dominated the music business. Even the prices feel like a throwback; with most shows charging between five to 10 dollars for admission, The Midway is Boston’s affordable and “always-on” home for the arts.
The Midway honors its 35th birthday this weekend with a three-day lineup of 19 bands, starting Friday evening (July 29) and running through Sunday afternoon (July 31). After a recession, a pandemic, and the collapse of the live music industry, the new milestone is nothing for Balerna to take for granted — nor should Boston music community. As of print time, the tally of shuttered venues since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic stands at six, and that’s excluding ONCE Somerville’s current summer reincarnation at Boynton Yards.
“To own and operate an independently run music/performance venue in the city of Boston for 35 years is quite a feat,” Balerna tells Vanyaland. “I tend to just look ahead to the next day, the next show, the next week, the next month, but I do need to stop at times and look back at the rungs of the ladder that I‘ve come up — and when I do, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Balerna and his brother David (who’s no longer in the picture) took control of the Midway in 1987, after the prior owners hoped to sell the space’s liquor license. The Balerna brothers catered to the rising genres at the time, hoping to pack the 60-person room on a regular basis. These days, the Midway’s capacity is just under 100, thanks to an expansion around 2010.
“It seemed in the late ’80s and ’90s blues were real big so we did a lot of blues jams and blues bands,” Balerna recalls. “After that it seemed rockabilly was big so we had a lot of rockabilly bands come through. Now it seems our residencies do real well.”
Diehard Boston music fans know the Midway’s schedule like the tracklist of their favorite album; Open mic is Sunday night, Grateful Dead cover night, a.k.a. “Hippie Hour,” is every Friday evening, and Queeraoke takes over every Thursday, offering a safe and welcoming place for members of Boston’s LGBTQIA+ community to meet up and belt a few tunes. Over 35 years, the club has netted quite a few awards, although Queeraoke has the most honors, ranging from a few “Best Karaoke” wins from The Boston Phoenix (RIP) and six similar distinctions from DigBoston.
In addition to the venue’s residencies and regular Boston-centric shows, it’s also hosted a slew of unique cultural events, including a Justin Bieber lookalike contest at the height of Bieber fever, and a GG Allin memorial show and bake sale benefitting the iconic-but-shitty New Hampshire punk’s estranged daughter. The Midway’s wildcard variety of programming has helped usher other art forms into the venue, including burlesque and storytelling.
“To be honest, I don’t think the Midway itself has changed that much,” Balerna reflects. “I think it’s a fun dive bar and people really enjoy coming back after years and seeing things are still the same. It’s a nostalgia-type-thing I guess. What’s better, I think, is business is better — we’re doing better than ever now. What’s worse is a lot of musicians in fans have been priced out of Jamaica Plain so we don’t have as many living locally. It was always fun when the bands that played and the people that came to see them all lived close by.”
Balerna cites the Midway’s blueprint for paying artists as another factor that’s carried the venue through the years. Performers split 70 percent of all ticket sales, as opposed to getting a cut from the bar or agreeing on a guarantee.
“The profit margin is so thin that you really have to do a lot of belt tightening along the way,” he explains. “I think our business model of paying the bands directly from the door cover charges and not doing guarantees has been the key to our success. It’s all performance-based pay. If a lot of people come through the door, the bar makes money, and the bands make money. If not a lot of people come through the door, the bar suffers, and the bands suffer as well. We’re all in this thing together.”
Indeed, the Midway’s sense of community is strong, even in “unprecedented times” that threatened to splinter the Boston music scene. In 2020, the Midway livestreamed shows from their stage, complete with a plastic shield separating the artists from a limited audience. When COVID-19 restrictions became less stringent, the Midway was one of the first independent venues to host regular music again. Amidst the chaos, talent agent Nick Blakey passed the torch to Heather Timmons from TinyOak Booking, following her years of service working the door and the soundboard. Timmons’ technological knowledge bridged the necessary gap between in-person live music and the pandemic-friendly livestreamed performances, updating the venue for the weird reality of the 2020s.
“Heather was instrumental in getting our live streaming up and going during the pandemic so we were able to put shows on and disseminate them over the Internet,” Balerna says. “Heather was able to book the bands, work the soundboard and set up the livestream and cameras. It was pretty impressive and it really helped me mentally that we would put these shows on because it felt like I was still in the game.”
“People would often say Midway is special or ‘Midway is home’, and I got to see why,” shared Timmons, who admittedly didn’t frequent the venue until she started working there. “My love for Midway grew out of my working here and being submerged in the environment.”
Timmons has also overseen other major upgrades, like a new soundboard and lighting rig. The Midway’s notoriously packed schedule and packed walls of old photographs, show posters, and gleaming awards aren’t going anywhere, though.
“There aren’t too many spots like this left, so it’s essential to protect Midway and help facilitate its future growth,” she concludes. “As the music industry and this city are constantly changing, I hope to help Midway evolve without losing its essence.”
So long as the neon “Midway Cafe” sign buzzes into the night, every night — with a live band or who knows what performing in the background — that essence will remain just as potent as day one.
THE MIDWAY CAFE’S ’35 AND STILL ALIVE’ BIRTHDAY SHOWS :: Friday, July 29 through Sunday, July 31 at 3496 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain, MA :: $10 cover :: Info: Day 1:: Day 2:: Day 3