At the Middle East, Decades of Rock and Roll History

middle eastKhalil Sater, son of Nabil Sater and one of the venue's co-owners, stands with a wall featuring decades of Middle East memorabilia. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

The family-owned Central Square venue is one of an ever-dwindling number of independent rooms in the city.

The sun is only beginning to set on this early summer Thursday, but already the intersection at Brookline Street and Mass. Ave.—where The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub’s mini empire is situated—is swarming with activity. Planes Mistaken for Stars will headline The Middle East Upstairs in a few hours, and guys clad in a brave amount of dark denim, given the 85-degree evening, stand in a group by the door, laughing and smoking cigarettes. A line dozens of kids deep runs down Brookline Street from the entrance to Sonia; they’re waiting to get inside for an under-21 dance party. More young people mill about beneath the bright-yellow beacon that points to the Middle East Downstairs; rapper Azizi Gibson is in town for an all-ages show there tonight.

People haven’t really begun showing up for Pop Thief ’s set at The Corner—doors aren’t until 9:30—which is good, since just about every seat inside is full. The patio’s looking pretty packed, too. And inside the dining room at the Middle East Upstairs, just a few booths and barstools remain vacant, nearly every table filled with groups of friends chatting over beers and burgers and falafel.

***

The Central Square hub was originally a restaurant, after all, something Rolling Stone’s writers were sure to point out—“perhaps the world’s only concert venue with a Lebanese restaurant upstairs”—when they named the Middle East Downstairs one of the best venues in the nation a few years ago. It opened in 1968, and the establishment was bought by brothers Joseph and Nabil Sater in ’74.

“It was eight tables: four large and four small,” recalls Joseph, who’s seated inside ZuZu. (With jazz music gently drifting from the speakers and a few folks catching up at the bar, it’s the one place in the building that’s approaching relative calm this evening.) Joseph explains that back in the ’70s, the entrance was on Brookline Street, and the stage that now faces the upstairs room was the kitchen. The bathroom was inside the kitchen. The only entertainment was belly dancing.

Little by little, the brothers began adding music to the mix. By the mid ’80s, they were booking a few jazz and blues bands.

But while it’s largely considered a rock club today, it wasn’t until 1987, when Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller hosted a record release there, that the Middle East held its first rock show. And the music programming only truly began to take off later that year, when local promoter (and local legend) Billy Ruane held his birthday party in the space.

“That’s when the chaos happened—they put a hole in every tablecloth,” a grinning Joseph recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of fun.’”

Ruane eventually took over programming on Tuesdays, which became the Middle East’s rock ‘n’ roll night. But the restaurant was still a high-end place; it had a maitre d’. So on Tuesdays, the tablecloths had to go.

“Then the tables were in the way, so I took out the tables when we had a rock show,” Joseph laughs. “And after that, I took everything else out.”

***

Growth at the Middle East was gradual. The brothers Sater slowly added more space on Brookline Street and expanded into 472 Mass. Ave. in the late ’70s. In a clever bit of maneuvering, they eventually made that their address, after the city of Cambridge decided that bars not located on Mass. Ave. had to close at 1 a.m. instead of 2. They moved into a Greek bakery that would become The Corner in 1988, and in their biggest, most ambitious move, took over a vacant bowling alley in the basement in the early ’90s. The Middle East Downstairs was then and is now the biggest of the venues, with a capacity just under 600. The brothers filled the space between the upstairs and the corner with ZuZu when they took over that lease in 2001, and, just a few months ago, opened Sonia at 10 Brookline St.

It’s a fully original setup that allows them to watch artists who once performed small shows at The Corner headline for sellout crowds downstairs—and in many cases, spaces the size of the House of Blues or bigger.

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“Perhaps the world’s only concert venue with a Lebanese restaurant upstairs,” Rolling Stone wrote when they named the Middle East Downstairs one of the best venues in the nation a few years ago.

When it comes to live music in Boston, just about all roads lead through the Middle East. Everyone from The Smashing Pumpkins to Public Enemy to Eminem has played the space. And the opportunity for growth isn’t limited to the locals who open shows at the upstairs or the headliners who stop by when they tour through town.

“This place has always managed to give me the opportunities to move forward,” says booking manager Ned Wellbery. He’s been working with the venue for 13 years, since he first started booking independent hip-hop shows there with Leedz Edutainment. Today, he’s the manager at Sonia.

The story is similar for Alex Pickert, booking agent for the Middle East Upstairs. Pickert had been working door shifts at the venue for about a year and a half and was booking a few freelance shows here and there as the head of Coach and Sons Olde Time Family Booking. But Wellbery and the Saters saw how hard “Coach” hustled.

“Ned pulled me off of a door shift and was like, ‘What’s up?’ He’d just been watching me,” Pickert laughs. “I was like, ‘Why is he sitting me down right now?’” Pickert explains how rare it is to have a route from taking tickets at the door to booking bands as a full-time agent. He never expected to do more than the occasional show there. “Mighty Mighty Bosstones did a live record from the upstairs, in, like, ’90-whatever,” he says. “I lived in California, and I grew up listening to them. I’ve been hearing about this place since I was 12. Now, I get to book the room.” Similarly, Sonia’s booking agent, Aaron Roy—a relatively recent addition to the team—has long-running ties to the venue. He says one of his first-ever nights out in Boston back in 2008 was to the Middle East Downstairs, where he saw drum and bass producer Feed Me play with Terravita and Hot Pink Delorean. Roy has since booked Feed Me twice, and while today, the DJ can fill the House of Blues, he’ll return to play the downstairs in July.

It’s not the only time the venue has impacted someone far beyond the confines of Cambridge, either. In addition to that 1998 Mighty Mighty Bosstones record Live From the Middle East, Dinosaur Jr. had its first DVD release with 2005’s Live in the Middle East. Just this March, Arizona death metal heavyweights Gatecreeper recorded Unleashed in the Middle East in the downstairs space. And in his 2015 memoir Your Band Sucks, Bitch Magnet’s Jon Fine writes quite a bit about Boston and about the venue, specifically—“a tiny room just off Central Square with surprisingly good sound.” He remembers Billy Ruane, too, who helped bring rock to the venue in the first place. Ruane passed away at age 52 in 2010.

“I last saw him at a Wipers show at New York’s Irving Plaza in the late nineties,” Fine writes. “He was dancing his spastic Snoopy dance in front of the stage as he always did, and though it had been years since we’d spoken, and though in fact we barely knew each other, when I tapped his shoulder, he recognized me, grabbed my cheeks, and kissed me on the lips. I miss him.”

***

There is something about the Middle East that makes touring bands remember it decades later, that keeps artists like Feed Me coming back. On that balmy Thursday evening in June, Planes Mistaken for Stars vocalist Gared O’Donnel puts it simply as he tunes his guitar on the upstairs stage: “I love this f*ckin’ room. We’ve had so many good times here.”

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Aaron Roy, booking agent at Sonia, the newest of the Middle East’s venues.

That’s something Roy attributes to the venue’s “mom-and-pop-shop feeling.”

“You don’t usually get that at venues, they’re often owned by some big company or some big owner who’s not very invested, is interested in the money, sits back in the office,” he explains. “Here, you see them every day, you interact. It creates a family atmosphere as opposed to a clinical, corporate place.”

It’s Nabil who runs the show just about every day, while Joseph holds it down in his “office”—the far-right, rear booth in the upstairs dining room at 472 Mass. Ave.—each night. (“He thrives in it,” Pickert laughs. “He stays until there’s only one person left, and then that person closes out, and he heads home.”) Nabil still lives across the street. Joseph’s home isn’t far down the road. Their sister, Sonia—for whom the newest venue is named—still works there. Khalil Sater, Nabil’s son, is now a part owner.

Their family-run venue is one of an ever-dwindling number of independent rooms in the city, where more and more spaces are run by companies like Crossroads or Bowery. Famed musician and audio engineer Steve Albini once told the Phoenix (RIP) that while his band Shellac loved playing Boston, it was a hard city to break into. “The Middle East is pretty much the only friendly venue for us—meaning not corporate-controlled and that doesn’t have a bunch of insane curtailment policies in place that prevent you from behaving like a normal band,” he told the alt-weekly. And that was back in 2010.

“We’ve got nowhere else to go,” booking manager Wellbery says today. “This is a place that really embraces independence. I don’t have other rooms I could book at that are as good.

“Without this place, me and some of the others… well, I don’t know how many others there are left,” he says, referring to independent booking agents. “But we wouldn’t have anywhere to throw our shows. That’s tough. That’d be a tough pill to swallow.”

It would be tough for fans, too, and for the venue’s 150-plus employees. Middle East booking agents have cultivated an eclectic mix of programming at Brookline Street and Mass. Ave. Tuesday’s comedy open mic at the corner regularly draws a sizable crowd. There’s Soulelujah at ZuZu, the 15-year-old, vinyl-only soul and funk night that each week welcomes scores of loyal listeners. Just this January, Roy just started a monthly night called Grassfed Disco at ZuZu that’s been a hit, and it’ll soon take place twice a month.

Many of those 150 staffers (Pickert says that in well-established venue lore, there was a time when the staff outnumbered officers in the Cambridge Police Department) are musicians themselves. They work there because this is a venue that respects that. As the drummer for Animal Flag, Pickert himself just returned from a month-and-a-half-long tour. But when they’re in the city—whether they’re on the schedule or not—he and many of the other staffers often happily spend their Friday and Saturday nights there.

“There’s a core group of people that’s just always here,” he says with a wide smile. “We’re stuck together, and we drink together, and it’s awesome. Almost everyone, even the servers, they all play music, they all make art. It’s crazy to be part of something that has such a huge legacy as this place.”

“This club is so important because it welcomes everybody—it doesn’t matter who you are, what background you’re from, what you do,” adds Wellbery. “They love everybody.”
Joseph says it’s simple: Find good people, encourage them to stay. It’s why some of the staff members, including those who tend bar, have been with the venue for more than 25 years.

“At The Middle East, you start from the bottom,” he says. “And if you prove yourself, you make it, we help you move up.”

And hey, not everything’s changed. The venue still hosts belly dancing on Sunday nights.

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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