The Midway Tavern (Part 2 of 2)

Photo by Justin Flagel

Photo by Justin Flagel

(Part 2 of 2, continuing the story from last week)

OleHarvAlbertina offered the band a spot to play on a regular basis and, soon, word of mouth led other musicians to her door. Though blues has always been the focus, she has played host to a variety of musicians, both traveling and local. She speaks fondly of South Bend drummer Billy “Stix” Nicks, who is as legendary for his charming, humble personality as he is for his skill on the drums. He plays the venue regularly, both with blues and jazz bands, as well as with his renowned Motown Machine band. Though she and her daughter have been known to seek out musicians by attending concerts and festivals, many bands reach out to her to play the venue. She has also found support in the local music culture, with regular references from WVPE’s Ole’ Harv on the weekly Blues Revue and from local music writers such as Andy Hughes.

She told me the tale of a local photographer who once came in and politely asked permission to take photos during the performances. He came in days later with a handful of photos for Albertina. After returning with his camera at the next concert, Albertina asked him if he planned to continue every week.

“He said to me ‘if you’ll let me.’”

Midway17Of course, Albertina did and now the walls of the venue are covered in photographs of past performances and legendary appearances. The pictures stretch across The Midway, lending a physical representation to the incredible history of the tavern. Together, she and I sorted through nearly a century of memorabilia, including autographs, pictures, and promotional documents. She even brought out intact licenses and liquor permits dating back to the 1930s. Poring over the collection, I could not help but consider the need for a local music museum. Her thoughts, though, are focused on the future and the ongoings of The Midway.

Photo by Justin Flagel

Photo by Justin Flagel

 

“When you’re in a small place like this, you don’t usually pay much attention to the world. You

know it’s there and you know there are a lot of changes in the world, but you just hope you can keep going,” she said.

She points to the changes around her, from competition in other local nightlife options to a younger generation unaware of the music and the venue itself.

“It’s amazing that this place is still alive,” she said.PinetopPerkins

She credits The Midway’s longevity to the foundation created by her mother, to the quality of musicians desiring to play the venue, and to the core group of customers who regularly visit. She has no plans to stop and is hoping to instill an appreciation for the music in audiences going forward, “keeping the blues alive” for each new generation.

The Midway Tavern is doing just that, keeping audiences aware on Facebook and the Web. You can follow them on Facebook and find schedules for the upcoming shows and stories from the past at themidwaytavern.com.

You can also browse the library of photos and documents from the Midway by visiting anywheretheneedledrops.com/themidwaytavern.

 

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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The Midway Tavern (Part 1 of 2)

It is a staple of the local music scene, yet somehow it remains unknown to many. It was by chance that I found my own way to it. Many years ago, in the days of the big bands at the Woodfire in Dowagiac, I came to know the musician Tom Moore. Over set-break discussion, he told me tales of the fantastic venue just off the corner of Smith and West 4th Street in Mishawaka, Indiana, of a blues bar embedded in a building that once housed Prohibition-Era rebellion, and hosted the likes of Al Capone.

 

The Midway Tavern, known also as Martha’s Midway, uses the tagline “keeping the blues alive” and it is a statement beyond marketing. Friday and Saturday nights, the venue plays host to some of the most talented musicians in the region and those traveling through. On a cold day this recent Winter, proprietor Albertina Wassenhove sat with me to recount tales of the music, her family, and the legend that is the Midway Tavern. She stands before me at a proud 88 years, the survivor of four cancers and a stroke, still working any evening a musician is playing and often on other nights. She was recently the honoree of an appreciation night at the tavern, celebrating her continued energy and involvement. She emphasized to me the importance of keeping busy and interested, telling me how it has kept her young and alive.

“I think people that retire and don’t find something have more of chance of dying than other people,” she said.

Martha83She described to me the history that led her to operating the venue. Her parents, who came to the United States from Belgium in the 1920s, acquired the bar where her father had been a frequent patron. The owner at the time, frustrated with the interactions between his wife and some of his customers, offered them the business and the building, even helping them to finance it. Early on, the establishment became marked with the personality of her mother, Martha. As Albertina explained, her mother did most of the work behind the bar while her father would socialize with the customers.

Albertina described her earliest memories of the venue. Her mother would not allow anyone under 21, including her, inside. Instead, she was forced to peek in from an adjacent doorway. The rule was lifted, however, when music was playing.

“That’s where I learned to dance,” Albertina said.

She became more involved at the age of 21, helping to tend bar and wait tables, along with her husband, stopping only to raise her children. When Martha died at the age of 91, Albertina and her sister took over the operation. Eventually, in 2003, she would come to run the bar entirely herself.

Photo by Justin Flagel

Photo by Justin Flagel

The Midway Tavern evolved over the decades to become the staple music venue it is now. The front section has the bar and holds pool tables and dart boards for the tournaments that occur multiple days each week. The back section holds the stage, plentiful tables and booths, and, of course, the dance floor. Once a space with a dirt floor and a pot bellied stove, it was remodeled in 1933 and remains largely in the same condition as it was then. Over the years, the music came and went, with the room closed for part of the 60s and used as a game space for people playing Belgian versions of bowling, darts, and archery. Albertina opened it back up in the 1980s, after being approached by a local musician.

Midway10“Somebody came in and wanted to know if they could use the back room to practice,” she said. “I thought, gee, that sounds pretty good.”

(Part 2 will continue in next week)

 

 

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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A Vinyl Story With Tom Moore

10982037_559180010891922_8083795043673093135_nTom Moore is known in the region as a roots-oriented musician, skillfully telling stories on stage with his harmonica, guitar, and vocals. Whether playing with Dave Moore as The Moore Brothers, in other groups, or on his own, Tom has a long history in the world of blues and Americana. In many ways, he’s responsible for my own exploration into the world of local roots music, whether during our earliest days of getting to know each other when he played the blues at the Woodfire in Dowagiac or showing me the magic of the historic Midway Tavern. Recently, after the passing of his longtime friend, Neil Raby, Tom started to tell me the tales of his own exploration of the world of music, framed around the record collection left to him by his departed friend.

“It’s a spectacular collection,” Tom said. “I knew pretty much every record in there. As time went on it had more of a personal quality to it. There’s a story behind every one of these records.”

Tom begins telling me the effect on his life of his friendship, what he refers to as “the Neil Raby phenomenon.” He described the first time he was aware of Neil, seeing him playing in a school basketball game when the two were young.

“He looked like a little version of Freddie Prinze,” Tom said. “He had this long mop of hair flying. He was all over the court. He was constantly yakking to his teammates, to the referees, to everybody. I was just like, what a character. Who is this guy?”

Some time later, Tom would have another encounter with Neil, riding his bike along the road on a hot summer day on a trip to a neighborhood where another friend lived, seeing him standing on the street corner.

“He’s got this immaculate white leisure suit,” Tom said. “He’s got a white beret on, sun glasses. He’s got these white gloves on and a cane and he’s standing there on a street corner with a girl on each arm. That’s the guy! I’ve gotta meet this guy!”

He soon would, meeting as Freshmen at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend. The two became fast friends, bonding over their shared interest in music. At the time, rock blues bands such as Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat were common in their playlists, but Neil was already exploring outside of the style, listening to the acoustic blues of Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins. Tom described the evolution of his taste in music, led both by Neil and by the record collections of the parents of their African-American friends.

“The sound was a little more stripped down, a little more scaled down,” Tom said. “Something about that really grabbed me.”

The pair, along with their peers, would find influences throughout their environment. Both their high school and the Town & Country Theater would bring in concert films featuring Woodstock, Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, and The Rolling Stones. They would meet Perry Aberli, who started the Midwest Blues Festival and had connections to Chicago blues labels, going over to his house to hear records from Johnny Shines and Doctor Ross The Harmonica Boss.

“I think for me, it was like ‘wow,’ that’s when music really started to get interesting,” he said.

He described the impact of seeing the same musicians live at festivals he was listening to at home. Neil especially had a habit of picking up the record for the musicians who would be coming to town. When the two went off to Ball State together, Neil’s collection really started to expand. They met another music aficionado, Jeff Harell, and the three would share a house together.

“We’d fall asleep listening to records and wake up listening to records,” Tom said. “He would spin records until three in the morning.”

Tom, pictured with Jeff Harell in front of the collection with the rare copy of Lightning Hopkins Live At The Bird Lounge.

Tom, pictured with Jeff Harell in front of the collection with the rare copy of Lightning Hopkins Live At The Bird Lounge.

Both Tom and Jeff refer to Neil’s impact on their musical tastes as significant. Jeff described Neil’s collection as “a big education” and explained how it increased his awareness of the wide spectrum of blues music.

“He had such a well rounded collection,” Tom said. “It’s kind of like this blues museum.”

Neil never stopped collecting. In addition to vinyl, he had sets of concert posters and other memorabilia. He would move into the world of CDs and boxed sets, but as Tom said, “he always played his vinyl.”

Tom hopes to find a way to bring the joy of Neil’s collection and their stories to music fans. I will bring you more of those stories here in the future. You can keep up on Tom Moore’s latest projects, including an upcoming release from The Moore Brothers, by visiting facebook.com/themoorebrothers.

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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Frank Walker

Joyce & Frank WalkerThe night was New Years Eve. Every patron at the Woodfire Trattoria was dressed in their finest clothing, gathered together with friends, and celebrating the festive nature of the evening. Dinner was long finished and forgotten and, as was the habit in those days, the tables closest to the stage were pushed aside to create an improvised dance floor. Joyce Walker and the Outcast Blues Band had been warming up the house with their solid blues performance, easing the crowd in by starting with slower songs and progressively increasing the tempo with each new one. Eventually, the energy built and spilled across the entire room and the evening became a blur of dancing, singing, and clapping along to the band. Riding the raucous wave, guitarist Killer Ray Allison stepped into the crowd from the stage, playing his wireless guitar on a journey that stretched across the restaurant. We had seen this particular move before, but this was the first time one of the dancers took it upon themselves to follow him in a conga line. Soon, the entire dance floor was winding toward the front of the Woodfire, picking up patrons from their tables as they passed. The restaurant full of party goers streamed in a dancing line, following their guitar-playing leader through the front door into the streets of Dowagiac and it’s freshly fallen snow. In the near-decade that has passed, I have never found a witness to who threw the first snowball. The culprit was unimportant, however, as the members of the disintegrating conga line quickly attacked whomever was nearest. Imagine most of the patrons of the fine-dining restaurant, dressed in their best clothing, having an epic snowball fight in the street. Of course, those were the kind of parties that happened in the blues days of the Woodfire and, most especially, on the nights when the Outcast Blues Band took the stage.

I have been reminiscing about those evenings in light of the news of the recent passing of Frank Walker. His Outcast Blues Band and the Woodfire are an important part of my personal growth. It was on the first evening I watched them play at the restaurant in Dowagiac that I found the courage to dance and carouse in front of other people without concern for their opinions of me. It was on the nights they played that I, along with my companions, would learn to lead the crowd, pulling other patrons from their comfortable seats to join us on the dance floor. The habit of pushing the tables aside to create that space soon became a duty, with the owner of the establishment at the time nodding to us when the moment was right to compel the crowd to end their meals and start the fun.

Frank Walker played music for over 40 years, spending the last part of his career sharing fronting duties of the band with his wife, Joyce. I remember sitting with them around their kitchen table in South Haven, hearing of Frank’s realization that his wife could sing the blues after decades of her acting as a quiet companion of the band.

Frank was born in Mississippi and spent much of his life in Chicago. He would start playing music casually, but found his way into professional gigs in 1968, going on to play with the likes of Jody Williams, JoJo Murray, and “just about anyone and everyone” in the Chicago blues scene. He would meet Joyce while she was visiting her aunt in Chicago. Joyce once told me the tale of how she first saw him taking care of his car at his mother’s house across the street.

“Woohoo, I had to meet him,” she said.

The couple dated for four years, marrying in 1977. The difficulties of raising their daughter in the city would lead them to Michigan, an area Frank was familiar with thanks to hunting trips with friends. According to Joyce, they were seeking a life that was “quiet and peaceful” and found it in Michigan.

“We were kinda messing around with music,” Joyce said.

They would create their first album playing in the garage of their first home in Covert. With both Frank and Joyce having family and professional ties to major names in the blues world, they would become something of a legend themselves, playing in venues around the region. The Woodfire, according to what Frank once told me, was his favorite venue.

I owe much to Frank Walker and the performances of his band at the Woodfire. He gave me my first taste of the blues and performed the soundtrack to some of the most important moments of my life. Cheers to him and his memory.

 

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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