A couple of years pre-pandemic, I was yearning for the good old days of my university life, back when coffee shops and folk music was the thing. I told my wife, Ruth, that I wanted to find a space and start up a coffee shop that could have open mike nights once a week. Ruth, ever the moderating influence on my enthusiasms, suggested that this would be a big time and money investment and might not be the fantasy I want to live. So we came up with an alternative.
Wellington Community Hall is just a short block from our home. It’s a classic building, rich in heritage, and still in constant use for seniors dance classes and Brownie meetings. We came up with the idea of putting on an open mike night there once a month, just to find out whether I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the fantasy. Thus was the Stage Fright Cafe born.
The name was suggested by my friend Timothy Von Boetticher, a brilliant song writer and musician with a history of running open mike nights, plus a family of talented wife and children. Among my favourite people.
The hall reeks of history, but it’s a very stark environment for a coffee house. It did have a great sound system and plenty of small tables and chairs. I made red table clothes. We brought in our own lighting – my Chinese photography lights, a couple of work lights, electric tealights for the tables, and a rope light to add some colour. We decided not to use the stage. I wanted a more intimate relationship between the performers and the audience, so our performance area was set up in front of the stage at floor level, defined by two long tables where instruments cases could be left. The transformation was pure magic. But the best part was the support from friends and neighbours.
Dave Merchie, who was in charge of the hall at the time, volunteered to run the sound system. Kerwood and Jess, who had owned a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to Nanaimo, volunteered to take charge of the drinks and snack food. I explained to our first audience that they had returned to 1962, and the coffee would be ten cents a cup. The snack food was similarly low priced – banana bread with blue berries that I baked the night before the event, cookies baked by Ruth, fresh popcorn, a veggie platter, hotdogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing costing more than a buck or two.
These three wonderful people, Dave, Kerwood, Jess, plus Ruth and myself, became the operational crew. Ruth took charge of the performer list and the cash. The hall gave us a great deal, since we were contributing to their mandate of community involvement. So the rent was eighty bucks a night, but only if the donations at the door and the food money covered more than our expenses for food.
The next thing we needed was performers. The concept, as the name implies, was to provide a venue for amateurs, and my old friend J. Douglas Dodd had students in need of microphone and audience experience. I didn’t really appreciate how terrified some of his students were at the very thought of standing alone before strangers and performing, but it was delightful to see the change as they settled down and became more comfortable.
We attracted a few pros from my pool of friends, most memorably Rick Scott and Nico Rhodes, Joelle Rabu, Timothy Von Boetticher himself (who used the occasions to try out new songs), the entire Von Boetticher family band, and Sue Averill who runs another open mike night with a different agenda. But most of the performers were seasoned amateurs who had played for years in their dens and living rooms without ever showing off what they could do. It was an eclectic mix, and amazing, joyful fun. We ended up with both regular audience members, and regular performers, with delightful surprises each session.
But… after a couple of years of setting up and breaking down and acting as the M.C., I was frankly getting tired. I think our regular audience, for whom I am eternally grateful, were also getting a bit tired. Many of Doug’s students aged out of classes, some moved on to professional training and careers. The pandemic gave me an excuse to shut the show down and take a break. I was not sure whether I would ever want to do it again. Been there done that, eh.
But the, last week, Hank Ketler, one of our regular and much admired performers, he of the mellow voice and competent guitar, called me to say that there was a new musician in town who wants to get involved in the scene here. He brought Linda Lavender (real name. Really!) over to meet me. She is just a delight, both in and as a singer song writer. So plans are in the works for another revival. It’s too early, with Omicron filling hospital beds and spreading, but I’m confident that the show will go on, eventually.
I told Linda and Hank that I would support their efforts, but I don’t have it in me to be the main man any more. Too many other interests taking my time*. But they have agreed to take charge of the management. Ruth and I will set things up, at least for the first couple of shows. We’ll see how things go.
Linda and I are also talking about teaming up to rehearse her new songs and fine tune my fiddle backup. It’s exciting. All of this is exciting.
*So, what is it that is filling my spare time these days? What could be pulling me away from community involvement and public music? Well… here’s a short list of current projects. I’m going to take another run at making bodhran rims. I made two of the Irish drums before I went to China, but I didn’t manage to get the traditional steamed yew rims perfectly round, resulting in slack rawhide goatskin heads. Since returning home, I’ve taken two cracks at making good rims, with no real success. So that’s on my mind. Then there’s my plans to make a wooden pasta rolling machine. The shiny stainless one I bought on line is simply too small and inadequate. Next I’m going to make a fretless gourd banjo. I’ve got the gourd seeds in potting soil right now, and by the end of the summer I’m hoping to have a selection of gourds. But lately I’ve been killing myself down the Sketchup rabbit hole, staying up until five in the morning to learn that challenging CAD program, an effort that has my neck and shoulders in pain. Of course there’s still the fiddle group once a week in Qualicum Beach, Oceanside Jammers, and zoom sessions with my friend Dave Clement in Winnipeg every Monday to work up new Celtic tunes. I don’t lack for interests and excitement.
And there’s more, but that’s for my next installment.