Milky Way change leaves live music hole

April 17, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

The Milky Way Lounge’s move last month from its original Hyde Square digs to a forthcoming home in The Brewery complex on Amory Street is now a part of Boston entertainment lore. It’s surely the only local nightclub to draw hundreds of people to a parade celebrating a change of address.

But while the Milky Way’s move is now famous, far less attention has been paid to a basic change in its format—a change that will leave Jamaica Plain and Boston without a major live music venue.

The new Milky Way will be mostly a DJ dance club, co-owner Kathie Mainzer told the Gazette. The expansive slate of rock bands and other live performances hosted by the original Milky Way will be gone. The Milky Way may also host acoustic musicians a couple of nights a week and, with its twin business the Bella Luna Restaurant, during brunch.

Some observers suspect the new Milky Way will eventually try to get back into the live-music business. But that would be in the future. In the present, there’s no Milky Way at all as the new location is still awaiting an opening date—though that could come as soon as next week.

“There will be a hole [in the local scene] as far as some of the rock music,” said Mainzer.

With the old Milky Way closed and the new Milky Way not yet born, this big but quiet format change has yet to sink in around the neighborhood. But it is already the buzz of the music scene.

On a Saturday last month, the Gazette encountered the Somerville indie rock band McAlister Drive shooting a music video in JP’s Monument Square. The closing of the original Milky Way and its format change were the first things on the mind of the band’s frontman, Christoph Krey.

“I think as far as Jamaica Plain goes, it’s a huge loss,” said Krey, whose band played the Milky Way last year, in a later interview.

Krey noted that the old Milky Way could host live acts large and small, and served to anchor a band’s fanbase in this section of the city. He also noted the dwindling number of mid-sized concert venues in the area, with such staples as Somerville’s Abbey Lounge and Boston’s Bill’s Bar either gone or on a death watch.

If an upstart band wants to play Boston proper, the choices are shrinking down to college auditoriums, Krey said. “There’s really not much out there.”

JP still has smaller venues that may fill part of the gap. The Alchemist Lounge has become Hyde Square’s new bastion of live bands, as Mainzer pointed out. And the Midway Café on Washington Street continues to offer up small-club bands and all-ages punk rock shows.

“It’s the loss of a music venue, and we don’t like to see that,” said Midway Café co-owner Dave Balerna of the Milky Way’s changes and the ongoing demise of smaller clubs. “They did it right,” he said, praising the Milky Way’s former live-band karaoke night as “ingenious.”

But Balerna maintains his competitive streak, and said “time will tell” whether the Milky Way will get back into live music.

“We wish them the best, and we hope they stay out of the live band business,” he said. “They did it good, and we won’t miss them.”

The Midway recently hosted a fundraiser for a City Council candidate—the sort of event the Milky Way regularly hosted and will again one day, according to Mainzer. But, Balerna said, the Midway isn’t deliberately adjusting to grab the old Milky Way business. “We are what we are,” he said.

“I think eventually [the Milky Way] will get into live music again,” predicts B.J. Ray, who possesses a uniquely rich perspective on the old and new Milky Ways.

In 2000-05, Ray was the promotions and booking manager at the Milky Way. Today, Ray is a real estate agent at JP’s Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and is keeping his eye on the Bella Luna/Milky Way’s vacant former home at 403-405 Centre St.

“It’s obviously sad,” Ray said of the Milky Way’s changes. But, he added, there is a silver lining to the “transmogrification.” The club will lose live music, but will create a “new lounge scene” for the neighborhood.

Ray also believes the Milky Way will attempt to return to its former live-venue glory. He noted it is still run by the same owners with the same vision of “creating a living room for the community.”

Mainzer said it’s “really hard to say” whether the Milky Way would ever become a full live music venue again.

Mainzer noted the Milky Way will still host its Latin music and spoken word nights and some form of kar-aoke. It will also still have a pool table, classic arcade video games and skee-ball in place of the old Milky Way’s candlepin bowling—all of the things that, Krey said fondly, made the club “an indie gaming facility.”

“We’re still going to have the fun, interactive elements that made the Milky Way the Milky Way,” Mainzer said.

Ray said he is more worried about the future of the former Bella Luna/Milky Way spot. Landlord Mordechai Levin previously told the Gazette that other nightclub/restaurants are interested in the space.

“It’s a very challenging space,” Ray said of the sprawling, two-level combination restaurant/nightclub/ bowling alley. He noted issues of parking, club capacity and building infrastructure.

“Anybody who’s coming in there and paying presumably 50 percent more rent will [find it to] be very chal-lenging,” he said.

“I just hope it isn’t going to fall into the hands of Lucky Strike or…some corporation’s hands,” Ray said, referring to an upscale bowling alley chain that has a location next to Fenway Park, as well as a dress code. “I doubt JP would let that happen.”

On the other hand, Ray said, Hyde Square is “thriving”—in part because Bella Luna/Milky Way was an anchor for so long. Any new business will be “coming into a place that’s a hundred shades brighter than it was when Bella Luna/Milky Way moved in there,” Ray said.

Ray praised the Alchemist for its taste in booking live music in Hyde Square, and said the local music scene will always survive.

“It’s like water,” he said. “It’s going to find its way.”