Returning crowds at One Neighborhood Rock Club bring anxiety and hope


When Massachusetts closed in March 2020, Jay Balerna thought his Jamaica Plain bar, the Midway Cafe, would only be closed for a few weeks. So he hired someone to give the club a facelift while it remained empty.

“I’m like, ‘Put a layer of polyurethane on the bar every day,’” says Balerna. “And then after three weeks he said to me: ‘That’s 20 coats, should I continue?’ And I say to myself: “It’s more than on a boat!”

Midway’s bar is still as shiny as a brand new sailboat over a year later. The paint on the walls has been touched up and the club cleaned from top to bottom.

Now Balerna can finally get him dirty again.

On May 17, Governor Baker announced that all COVID restrictions would be lifted at the end of the month. The news has been a boon to concert halls like the Midway, which have struggled to stay afloat under some of the state’s toughest pandemic restrictions. These rules were intended to limit capacity in loud, crowded spaces where COVID-19 is more likely to spread. But with rising vaccination rates, venue owners like Balerna are hoping audiences will come back.

“It’s such a relief,” he says. “I’m excited to let people be people and hang out like we used to.”

Midway Cafe owner Jay Balerna. (Amelia Mason / WBUR)

The past year has been the toughest in more than three decades that Balerna has run the Midway Cafe. Over the years, the beloved neighborhood rock club has managed to survive as other venues shut their doors, dejected by rising rents and dwindling crowds. Then came the pandemic.

“I’ve been running a live music venue for 30 years, so I know how to keep alcohol on the shelves, keep bands relatively happy, keep employees relatively happy, keep theft to a minimum,” Balerna says with a chuckle. . “And all of a sudden it’s like, take whatever you can do, take it off the table.” You will learn how to complete the grants!

He did exactly that, scraping through a patchwork of grants and loans. Balerna estimates that Midway has accumulated over $ 100,000 in debt. He is waiting to see if a large federal grant will be paid to alleviate the daily costs of running the bar. He took a value line on his house and filed for unemployment, which he never thought he would have to do.

But the hardest part was the stress. As the bills went up, Balerna started having panic attacks.

“All of a sudden, I feel like I’m going to throw up, on the verge of tears,” he said. “And then I came home with my three kids and I was like, ‘Hey, everything is fine!’ … So you just have these little private moments of terror.

It helped when Balerna was able to live stream concerts from the club and then open a few evenings a week for a partial capacity seated audience. He has even more hope now that the bar can fully open.

But the sudden announcement left him little time to prepare. Club bookers are rushing to fill the schedule, which could take weeks. Some of Midway’s popular staples – like Queereoke, the weekly LGBTQ night of dance – are not ready to resume live performances. And not everyone feels safe attending crowded concerts. Balerna will not relax until the public has returned to pre-pandemic levels, which he says could take some time.

“Everyone digests this thing differently,” he says. “I’ll be happy when I’m back to my old ways.” “

Hippie Hour regulars Billy Ward and Rocky.  (Amelia Mason / WBUR)
Hippie Hour regulars Billy Ward and Rocky. (Amelia Mason / WBUR)

The first real test takes place on the first Friday in June. It’s the 10th anniversary of Hippie Hour, Midway Cafe’s popular Grateful Dead night. As Balerna predicted, the club are not quite full. But the dance floor is crowded. Friends embrace ecstatically as the group peruse a rambling rendition of “Tennessee Jed.” A pink balloon bounces lazily above the heads of the crowd.

Outside on the sidewalk, Hippie Hour regular Jess Gard marvels at the events of the past year.

“I had low anxiety all the time,” she says. “It was like a weird science fiction movie.”

Le Gard volunteered to help when the club reopened for seated concerts. She took the temperatures at the door and made sure everyone was wearing masks. Now she is glad things are back to normal.

“For a year now, I’ve been telling these people that they can’t dance. These people, my friends, no dancing! exclaims Gard.

Now they are allowed to dance again. This, more than anything, signals a return to normalcy. A return to the close-knit community that the Gard loves.

“This Friday… was like some people’s church on Sunday,” she said. “It’s really very nourishing for the human spirit.

More people spill over onto the sidewalk as the evening wears on. Midway’s Heather Timmons reservation is one of the few to wear a mask. “I’m still a week away from being fully vaccinated, so I’m not comfortable not wearing one yet,” she explains.

Timmons scrambles to keep up with the flood of emails from bands eager to play. She doesn’t know what the next few months will bring her. “I think summer is going to be a little weird for shows everywhere, just because a lot of people still aren’t comfortable,” she says. “But … tonight, for example, has blown up and looks pretty normal.”

Balerna stands by the front door with Billy Squire, a regular at Midway. Squire asks a question: How does it feel to have survived the pandemic?

“Do you have nine lives, or what, man?” he asks.

But Balerna is not yet ready to claim victory. He still has a big financial hole to dig. “You have to watch the rungs of the ladder as you climb, I guess,” he said. “I keep looking up.”

Back inside the club, the group begins to vamp. Leader Mark Pelletier addresses the crowd.

“Babies are born. People got married, people got divorced. People have passed away and we mourned it together, ”he says. “[It’s a] lovely happy little family we have built here, and [it’s] so well that we can do it all again.

The group ramps up and the crowd begins to move. It’s almost like it used to be.

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