Venues of America: An Oral History of The Middle East

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Tucked away on a street corner in crowded Cambridge, Massachusetts is The Middle East—a restaurant-turned-venue that now hosts shows on a nearly daily basis in any of its three rooms. With the recent acquisition of the neighboring building and the construction of the venue Sonia, The Middle East has upped its game once again. A watering hole for the thousands of college students in the area, it is known best for its club nights in the Downstairs venue, hosting three- and four-band bills in the Upstairs, electronic shows at Sonia—and, perhaps most importantly, its reputation for hosting small acts before they make it big. We sat down with a few members of the team—Ned, Alex, Aaron, and Jake—and talked about the shows, the history, and the reason why The Middle East is so important to the music scene in the greater Boston area.

Cliché: Tell me about your first days working at The Middle East. What’s changed since then? What’s stayed the same? What drew you towards the venue to begin with?

Ned, Booking Manager: I’m not going first.

Alex, Upstairs Booking Agent: I started in 2015, doing door and coat check. Around mid-2016, Ned got hired as the booking manager and then he hired me as the upstairs booking agent […] We’ve had a lot of staff that’s changed since then. But, I guess what drew me here was, that I just graduated college—I went to Berklee College of Music—and my old boss at the Berklee Performance Center, his wife was working door here, and she hired me to do door. I was really excited to just work at a music venue, somewhere that live music happens all the time. And I was really interested in concert promotion already, so it worked out well.

We have a lot of different rooms and a lot of different things going on. Getting a hold of all that is overwhelming, but it’s awesome.

Aaron, Sonia Booking Agent: I started as an independent promoter working with Ned about three or four years ago. We had a company together […] I graduated from college and they offered me a job as a talent buyer, and Ned offered me here a job, as well. That was for Sonia, which is the newest venue here, so I’d say that’s definitely the biggest change. When I came on I started in Zuzu, the smaller room, and then Sonia was built. So, I started two Februarys ago and Sonia opened up March. And then another change with that is that we opened without a liquor license, but now we got it in January.

Jake, P.R. & Marketing: Some of the early days are similar to Aaron. I started out working with Ned, five plus years ago. Eventually, I started P.R. and marketing here, about a year ago […] We have a lot of different rooms and a lot of different things going on. Getting a hold of all that is overwhelming, but it’s awesome. Things that drew me towards this is just going to shows as a kid, and to college. Just the opportunity to work at a live music venue is awesome.

Ned: I started throwing shows here in 2004. I had gone to shows here as a kid—I shouldn’t say as a kid, as a teenager, before I started my own—and I was drawn here because of the hip-hop scene. I started off as a hip-hop promoter, so I used to go to shows here as a hip-hop fan. And then after college I started wanting to throw my own shows, and I started throwing my shows here. As a promoter, I gradually got an in-house job working at the club, and now I’m manager 15 years later—14 years later. What’s changed? The music really. Different genres of music. The type of hip-hop that I book now… I mean it’s always changing […] Sonia is a new development that used to be T.T. The Bear’s […] The Middle East bought the building. Then we renovated that room and made a brand new room. So that’s probably the biggest change. The music and then the renovation of the new room.

Venues of America: An Oral History of The Middle East: Image courtesy of Lilly Milman

From left to right: Alex, Lionel (who walked in moments after the interview), Ned, Aaron, Jake / Photo courtesy of Lilly Milman

Do you miss the old music?

Ned: I mean, we still do some of it. […] I miss doing a lot more of the music I like. But that’s just the harsh reality of the business. Music changes and things change, and you don’t necessarily agree with it. But as a promoter, you kind of just have to roll with it.

What have some of your favorite memories been working at the venue? Your worst memories?

Jake: I guess some of the favorite memories I have are doing shows with people we’re fans of. So, for instance, Vince Staples was here and I’m a huge fan of Vince Staples. But also that could go both ways. If you’re a big fan of the artist and you get to meet them and they don’t live up to your expectations, and they are the complete opposite of what you think they would be.

I won’t make you name drop.

Alex: I feel the same way as Jake.

Aaron: Yeah, I do, too.

Ned: Wait, what was the question? What is your favorite memory?

Alex: I bet you have a lot.

Ned: Favorite memory… that’s going to take a second… We’ve had a lot of surprise performances. I think that might be my favorite. We did a show with Scarface, and DMX just randomly showed up. I had done a show with Slaine and Ill Bill, back in the day, and Everlast randomly showed up. Stuff like that is really some of my fondest memories. And the comedy of working here everyday, I really appreciate it. There’s a lot of colorful people. Interactions with all the different colorful people and their personalities are some of my favorite memories. Worst memory… Let’s see…

We could move on, if you want to think about it.

Ned: We’ll have to backtrack to that one. I’m trying to compile 15 years of information, we’ll go back to that.

Venues of America: An Oral History of The Middle East: Image courtesy of Lilly Milman

Photo courtesy of Lilly Milman

What would you describe as the main differences between the Upstairs and Downstairs?

Alex: I mean, it starts with the size of the room, for sure. The Downstairs is 550 capacity and the Upstairs is 185. I feel like something they have in common is that, no matter where you are in the room, you’re close to the stage. And both rooms are intimate enough to stand out from other venues.

Jake: I guess, for the Downstairs, the energy is more contained. It’s a basement, so the vibes just get a little crazier down there. Upstairs is, you know, open.

Ned: They’re both intimate places. They’re both great places to see shows. You can’t really compare them because of the size, so the type of shows that are in there are different […] What’s great about them is they’re a lot of people’s first play in the city, before people get big. We’ve had gigantic artists like Machine Gun Kelly. He’s played the Upstairs. It’s cool to have that memory, of like, I saw him play in front of 200 people. These other great acts have played downstairs. Eminem played downstairs. That’s kind of what makes those rooms greats […] The downstairs in particular because it’s low ceilings and it’s packed and it’s in a basement […] It’s pretty intense if it’s packed. Did we talk about Sonia at all? We should probably talk about Sonia a little bit.

We’ve had gigantic artists like Machine Gun Kelly. He’s played the Upstairs. It’s cool to have that memory, of like, I saw him play in front of 200 people.

Yeah definitely, we can talk about it.

Ned: Let Aaron talk about Sonia.

Aaron: I think Sonia is much different because it’s brand new, it’s very clean, it’s very sterile, almost. You know, like, it hasn’t been beaten up yet, whereas the other rooms have been here for decades. So there’s a huge difference. Sonia has very high ceilings, which is obviously much different than the Downstairs. The sound and the lighting is much more comprehensive. There’s a lot more going on there because it’s designed more for electronic music, so they need more production to keep people more focused—as opposed to live acts that don’t want to be distracted by a bunch of lights. But it actually, capacity wise, fits right in between the Up and Down. So, Up is 2, Sonia is 350, Down is 550. It fits in nicely with the circuit, but it’s a much different room.

Ned: It’s more like a club. We do all things in it, but it’s got more of a club vibe.

Do you guys have a favorite of the venues?

Alex: I personally love the vibe of—like, if we’re talking about sold-out shows—like sold-out Downstairs shows are really just a fun feeling. The room itself definitely, like Jake was saying, kind of contains all the excitement. But there’s just so many things happening in one place.

Ned: Downstairs for me, for sure, because I have so much history there. The best shows I’ve ever thrown are Downstairs. I mean, Upstairs is great, but the Downstairs… that’s my best memories.

Jake: Same, I would choose the Downstairs.

Aaron: Downstairs. Can’t beat it.

Venues of America: An Oral History of The Middle East: Featured image courtesy of Jess Benjamin/Scout Cambridge

Photo courtesy of Jess Benjamin/Scout Cambridge

Do you think having different venues within one building distinguishes the Middle East from other venues? Do you consider them different venues?

Ned: I think it’s pretty awesome that we have that because not a lot of places have that. Nothing in the city that’s like this. We’re kinda like an independent entertainment complex. Actually, that’s what we are. They’re different venues. It’s one building, but it’s different rooms. I consider each room a venue. I don’t think that’s the draw to this place though. The draw is the artists. If the artists are playing here, people are gonna come see the bands. And the location, […] Central Square… Being in a convenient location, and the history here, and all the staff—everyone who works here—that’s what the draw is. And what makes this place unique. The fact that it’s been here for 40 years. It started off as a restaurant and it expanded into this […] There’s nothing like this in the country. I’ve had tour managers that come through here and they’re like “there’s nothing like this.”

What would you say is the mission statement of the venue?

Alex: I feel like I would just say we’re open to everyone. We’re welcome to all kinds of music and all kinds of people.

Ned: We love everybody.

Aaron: Make yourself at home.

Ned: I think that’s really the mission statement. This is a home for artists to come, for patrons to come, listen to great music, eat some good food, and have a great time […] It’s a family business, and that’s what they care about. The owners really care about people and they really love the people, and they love being hospitable.

Alex: I think what really distinguishes us from other venues is that it’s a family-run business. It’s not corporate whatsoever. We’re the only private music venue in the city.

Really?

Ned: Did you say private?

Alex: Not private—independent, sorry.

This is a home for artists to come, for patrons to come, listen to great music, eat some good food, and have a great time

What are some memorable performances you’ve seen here?

Aaron: When I first moved here, I saw Zed’s Dead in the basement. They’re, like, huge, you know—they’re a House of Blues act now. And then, another show after, Feed Me—who’s also another House of Blues act. I saw those shows back-to-back and those were my first two shows in Boston as an adult. It’s what introduced me to dance music, which is now my job.

Alex: Like, the second day I started working here, I saw Thundercat in the downstairs. I just remember not realizing until that exact moment, like, how lucky I was to be working here. And to be around all this stuff. I think that’s something that will stick with me for awhile.

Jake: What sticks out to me is that we did Logic upstairs, like four or five years ago. That was just an awesome show and to see where he’s gone now is, like, insane. That show was a 185 cap.

Ned: I have a few. I mean, Kendrick Lamar. The biggest thing about doing Kendrick Lamar downstairs was that it wasn’t a big deal at all. I mean it was cool, but it wasn’t even a sold out show.

Do you remember how long ago that was?

Ned: Let me look it up. It might still be on TicketWeb…

Alex: I don’t even think I knew that.

Aaron: I didn’t know that.

Ned: 2011.

I just remember not realizing until that exact moment, like, how lucky I was to be working here. And to be around all this stuff.

So that was, like, pretty recent.

Ned: It was before he dropped—it was around like his second album. Before M.A.A.D City. We did that show. It wasn’t, like, a crazy, memorable show, until after the fact. Looking back on it… I mean he did a great job, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t like… It was ahead of its time. But looking back on it, I’d say it’s pretty crazy. Talib Kweli, probably. He had a complete meltdown with the sound man. If we’re talking about one of my worst experiences, that’s one of them.

Wait, can you describe that in more detail?

Ned: Talib Kweli and the sound guy went at it. Onstage. And in the middle of the show. In front of a sold-out crowd. I had to go up on there and break up the argument and the sound guy walked out. Talib, like, walked off the stage. I had to get everybody back on stage. And people were flipping out. Luckily, the show went on. I will say that was a bad experience.

So, you’re not afraid to name drop.

Ned: Nope.

Aaron: I mean that’s pretty out there, everyone knows about that.

Ned: What else was a good show? DJ Premier vs. Pete Rock. For me, as a fan, growing up with those guys… That was a great show. And they’ve never done that before. They both DJed on stage, playing each others music. For a hip hop fan from my era, that was pretty intense […] Something like the early plays, like The Lupe Fiasco playing early in my career, that was big. Wiz Khalifa. Wiz Khalifa and Yelawolf together. That was a show. That was crazy. A$AP Rocky […] That was one of the crazier shows because they were just slam dancing like crazy. I think I answered enough there…

Are there any big changes in store for The Middle East in the near future? Any big plans?

Ned: Like I said, Sonia—that was the biggest change. That was a big change we’re just getting through. That opened a year ago and it didn’t have a liquor license for like… how long?

Alex: 6 months?

Jake: Almost a year.

Aaron: It was April to January.

Ned: End of January. So basically February. So that was a difficult thing because we had a new venue open, Sonia, with no liquor license. And in this business that’s rough.

Why did it take so long?

Ned: Just due process of the city. There was a lot of laws about— The previous owner had it and she had so much time to sell it— We had to wait to go through the due process. That was a really tough experience, but we got through it and now Sonia is up and running. and doing great business, and has great shows. So, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Read more Music Articles on ClicheMag.com.
Venues of America: An Oral History of The Middle East: Featured image courtesy of Jess Benjamin/Scout Cambridge

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