The Boston Phoenix
November 6 - 13, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Best wishes

Ten years at the Middle East

by Brett Milano

[Buttercup] November 10, 1987, may not have been a date that shook the world, but it was a banner night for the local club circuit: it was the first time a rock band officially played at that Central Square hotspot the Middle East. Over the next decade, the one-block radius of Massachusetts Avenue and Brookline Street -- the home of T.T. the Bear's Place, Man Ray, the Phoenix Landing, and all three rooms of the Middle East -- would become the epicenter of local rock. And it all started because Billy Ruane turned 30.

Ruane, the inexhaustible club promoter and scenester extraordinaire, had booked himself a birthday show next door at T.T.'s that night in 1987, but he wound up pulling in too many bands, and the Middle East was persuaded to handle the overspill. For the record, the Blake Babies opened, and guitarist Rich Gilbert (with singer Jeri Cain Rossi, then of Black Cat Bone) headlined; also appearing were the Brothers Kendall, Richie Parsons, and Les Chanteuses Sorcières (a cabaret act with Linda Price, now of Crown Electric Company). The rest, of course, is history. "Sure, I remember the first night -- the place looked exactly like it does now," notes Greg (Skeggie) Kendall, who recently returned as one of the club's bookers (Terri Park handles the upstairs booking and Margot Edwards the downstairs room). Not only did he perform at the 1987 opening, but that was the night he met his wife -- Brattle Theatre co-director Connie White -- for the first time.

This Monday, the Middle East celebrates the 10-year anniversary of that first rock night with the largest line-up it's ever had on one night: 31 bands are booked at this writing, and others are bound to come on board in the interim. (WFNX/101.7 is joining the festivities to celebrate its 14th birthday.) Partial band list: Come, the Flying Nuns, Willie Alexander, Cherry 2000, Victory at Sea, Mary Lou Lord, Buttercup, Gravel Pit, and two bands whose names can't be advertised because of prior bookings (those would be Fuzzy and Buffalo Tom). There's even a possibility that Joseph Sater, who owns the club with his brother Nabil, will be coaxed on stage to play flute, something he hasn't done since the club booked Greek music in its pre-rock incarnation.

On that subject, one myth about the Middle East needs to be laid to rest: it wasn't just a quiet neighborhood restaurant before the rock bands moved in. In fact, the club had presented music since its 1972 opening; by the '80s it had a weekly blues night (booked by pianist David Maxwell, who later led the House of Blues House band) and a jazz night (hosted by Stan Strickland) -- along with the belly dancing that's still featured on Wednesdays. When live rock started at T.T.'s during the mid '80s, the musicians would naturally gravitate to the Middle East to drink and watch the dancers. The downstairs bowling alley -- which became the Middle East's main room in 1992 -- was also a popular hangout for a time. And if you want to get technical, Ruane's 30th wasn't even the first rock night -- Roger Miller had played there a few months earlier, at a record-release party for Danny Mydlack (a performance-art type who used to play accordion and shave his chest on stage).

"We always had a lot of artists here, and a pretty educated clientele," Sater recalls while proudly surveying his club. Even on a quiet Wednesday, there's evidence of the place's bohemian feel -- the artwork on the walls, the rock bands (members of Fuzzy and Splashdown) hanging out. "The regular customers were in a state of shock for a while, but they got used to the piercings and the vibrant colored hair. At first they said, `Hey, I came here to get away from my kids and my family, but these kids look the same.' But now everyone gets along."

Kendall and Ruane give each other all the credit for the club's early bookings. But Ruane points out that the 1987 rise of the Middle East was part of a trend toward an acoustic/cabaret format that had already sprung up at the Rat (where the band Ed's Redeeming Qualities hosted their eclectic "Ed's Basement" nights) and at Green Street Station (the now-defunct Jamaica Plain club where Nirvana once opened for the Cheater Slicks). "You remember the '80s," he reminds me. "It was always the same 12 bands in different combinations at the same four clubs. The cabaret theme was a way to make things more interesting."

Most of the prominent local bands played the Middle East in the club's early days -- and yes, the Breeders played their first show in the upstairs room -- but there was no shortage of left-field acts. Ruane recalls that the late GG Allin, who was notorious for slinging body fluids on stage, played there once. "And he got through the entire set. Chris Brokaw [now of Come] booked him and made him promise he'd behave." Kendall remembers a 1987 set by Thurston Moore with drummer William Hooker that had the crowd vocally split down the middle. "They did an hour-and-fifteen-minute jam. Half the audience was yelling, `I love you, Thurston!' The other half was, `You suck, I want my money back!' "

My own favorite memory is of a late 1988 show by fanzine author Lisa Carver, who was then in her more extreme phase as Lisa Suckdog. She'd been shut down in Hartford two nights earlier for on-stage nudity, but at the Middle East she and her two assistants spent the 90-minute show blasting electronic tapes, screaming at the top of their lungs, rolling on the floor in catsuits, pretending to have sex, and taunting the cops who had lined the walls at the back of the room, waiting for them to step over the line.

The opening of the downstairs room, in late 1992, brought in more of a mainstream/alternative focus, but the early cabaret sensibility never fully disappeared -- and it's re-emerged again lately, as the front bakery is being used for more eclectic shows. With Kendall working with a strong booking crew at the Middle East, local booking veteran Randi Millman returning last year to T.T.'s, and Ruane back in the fray with shows at the Middle East and Charlie's Tap, Central Square still has a lot of the creative 1987 vibe.

"My memories of the Middle East don't revolve around one big event, more like a gazillion little bands over the years," Kendall says. "It just seemed like a fun, weird space for a party." And so it still is.


No, the Spirit of Orr label wasn't named after a former hockey star or the guy who played bass for the Cars. "People are bound to think that when you start a label in Boston with that name," admits co-owner Ron Schneiderman. In fact the label's inspiration wasn't Bobby or Ben Orr but a literary reference he's reluctant to give away. "It has to do with taking time and making sure you're doing everything right. Making sure that we're good people, and that we really have good records to sell -- not just records people want. Because those two aren't necessarily the same thing."

Spirit of Orr is the highest-profile label to arise from Surefire, the indie-label distributor based near South Station. Begun on a shoestring four years ago, Surefire is now a national operation distributing more than 600 labels; it's even started a few of its own. The distributor has two full-time employees and a half-dozen part-timers who all run their own labels (another in-house label, Libana, released an essential Cobra Verde/Guided by Voices split single last summer). But Spirit of Orr is looking to develop its own roster of bands who could make a national impact; among them are Columbus's Moviola and Tower Recordings and the label's one Boston band, Buttercup. All three will appear at the Middle East this Sunday at a label showcase billed as a "Spirit of Orr Family Reunion Weekend."

The warm and fuzzy name of the event reflects the label's philosophy. "Our bands all correspond with each other, and we hope this helps bring them together," says Schneiderman. "There needs to be more to it than being a marketing organization; that would be really flat." Can the family feel be maintained if the major labels swoop in on Spirit of Orr's bands, or would they be interested? "I can't say, because I'm not in the mindset of major-label people. If they do, that's something we'd have to discuss. If something has the potential to reach an audience of that size and the record would be taken to people properly, I can't see where that would be a bad thing. The idea is to get music to as many people as possible."

Sunday's showcase will double as a CD-release party for the second Buttercup album, Love, which alone is enough to justify the label's idealism. It's a step ahead from the band's first album, Gold (which was already a two-year-old demo by the time the label released it on CD last year), where they came across as a promising but still green outfit throwing a moody spin on '60s pop structures. This time they're less eager to go for a hook and more inclined to brood on the way to the choruses; the songs are generally slower and prettier -- and with stronger country leanings, since Tim Obetz's steel guitar has taken over from singer/writer Jim Buni's six-string as the lead instrument.

I've heard a couple of Dumptruck comparisons, which makes sense -- partly because guitarist Mike Leahy has been in both bands, partly because Buni's voice has a dry quality recalling Dumptruck's Seth Tiven. Both writers have a dour streak that undercuts the tunefulness they're capable of, but it crops up differently. Tiven always came across as a first-class cynic; Buni shows a dogged optimism, even though many of the new tunes deal with friends who mess up and love that doesn't pan out. And whereas the songs on Gold were all written in bright tones, Love sports the deeper, more rewarding sound of that optimism holding up under pressure.


Country-rockers the Darlings play Bill's Bar tonight (Thursday), Jonatha Brooke does her CD-release party at the Paradise, ace songwriter John Hiatt is at Avalon, My Dad Is Dead and Bright are at T.T. the Bear's Place, and you-know-who's little brother Simon Townshend is at the House of Blues . . . Tomorrow (Friday) 6L6 bring a bunch of friends (Roadsaw, Planet Jumper) to help celebrate the release of their new CD at Mama Kin. Fuzzy and the Red Telephone do the pop at T.T.'s, Scissorfight are at the Middle East, Stereolab play a sold-out show at the Paradise, and the Big Bad Bollocks are at the Phoenix Landing . . . Another CD-release party, for Curve of the Earth's Girls Girls Girls compilation, brings Verago-go, Ramona Silver, Mistle Thrush, American Measles, and Betwixt to Mama Kin Saturday. That same night the mighty Lyres are at the Middle East, hall-of-famer Bo Diddley plays Harpers Ferry, Texas's best zydeco band, Li'l Brian & the Zydeco Travelers, are at Johnny D's, and the theme bill of the week -- Superfly, Superbug, and Superzero -- is in Mama Kin's front room . . . Two funky options on Tuesday: Ex-P-Funk and Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell brings his Woo Warriors to the Middle East, and New Orleans institution the Radiators are at the House of Blues . . . And those rightly acclaimed orchestral poppers the High Llamas play the Middle East Wednesday.
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