June 2005 - Over the last 15 years, singer-songwriters have grown in popularity
and influence. Big label acoustic rock bands like Dave Matthews Band and the Counting Crows and pioneering women like Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls paved the way for contemporary pop powerhouses like John Mayer, Jack Johnson and Gavin DeGraw. Locally, there are hundreds of singer-songwriters looking to contribute to and benefit from the renewed mainstream popularity of acoustic music.
There are opportunities to see fresh talent performing in local coffeehouses, churches and bars in Central Massachusetts seven days a week. A dedicated core of presenters, musicians and fans anchor this longtime scene in the Greater Worcester Area.
Although New England is regarded as the folk mecca of the world, Central Massachusetts has fallen off the map in the last 10 years. After the 1996 closure of the OVK (Old Vienna Kaffeehaus) in Westborough, the Central MA folk scene declined, surviving only because of the passion and resources of a small vanguard. “Central MA has a great community of pickers,” says Walter Crockett, lead guitarist of Valerie & Walter Crockett and the Oxymorons. Mike Duffy, musician and founder of the “Folk’n A” open mic night at the Webster House Restaurant in Worcester, agrees. “There is a very supportive core of musicians and artists. They are great people and that’s a plus,” he says. “I see an amazing amount of support in the folk scene. There’s always one singer-songwriter promoting another, who’s promoting another. It’s really nice to see,” says musician Heidi- Jo Hanson, host of the “Acoustic Singer/Songwriter Showcase” at McNally’s Grille & Pub in Westminster.
The folk scene in Central MA has remained vibrant and creative through the enthusiasm, hard work and networking of open mic presenters like Hanson and Duffy and through coffeehouse producers like Chuck Demers of the Green Rooster Coffeehouse in Worcester and Gary Kavanagh of the Steeple Coffeehouse in Southborough.
Despite the support of folk radio station WICN, more than ten weekly acoustic open mic nights and over 25 folkfriendly/ folk-centric venues, these organizers have been finding it difficult to bring in audiences. “It’s getting harder to bring folks in to see a show for the evening,” says Kavanagh.
Crockett and Duffy agree. “Although you tend to get an audience that likes to be entertained and is open to a wide variety of music,” says Crockett, “the audience for the music is aging and not going out as much.” “It’s hard to get people to come out and take a chance on new acts,” says Duffy. He also believes that the scene is oversaturated. With so many open mic nights overlapping, the small audience is being pulled in different directions on the same nights, diluting attendance.
The OVK anchored Central MA’s folk scene for years. It was equal in popularity to Cambridge’s Club Passim. Its demise is a “void we still face,” Duffy says. “Nothing has replaced the zen of the place.” He says that he started “Folk’n A” four years ago at the now closed Gilrein’s in Worcester “just to keep something going.”
Many of the presenters and hosts of open mic nights are musicians themselves. Hanson has been entertaining professionally for 11 years and released her first album of original work, “I’m Still Me,” in 2004. She says, “I enjoy meeting and supporting my fellow singer-songwriters more than anything. These people have a message that they bring into the world through the gift of song. They truly inspire me.”
The scene continues to attract new supporters, too. Rob Peterson and his wife Ania, both in their mid-twenties, opened Acoustic Java on Main Street near Clark University in Worcester in November 2004. They began hosting live entertainment in January, initially tapping the university and making contacts through the web and at other local open mics in order to book local talent. Peterson says that his small coffee shop, with its living room atmosphere and respectful “listening crowd” of regulars, is the perfect place for new acts to hone their songs and stage presence. “Local icons like Valerie and Walter Crockett, Plainfolk and Chuck & Mud perfected their songwriting craft and musicianship at local club and church coffeehouse hoots and open mics,” says Duffy. “These open mics offer a safe atmosphere for songwriters and musicians. They know the audience is there to listen.”
Check the listings – many young and emerging songwriters grace local stages all over Central Massachusetts every day and are always looking for new supporters.
Thank you to Walter Crockett, Chuck Demers, Mike Duffy, Heidi-Jo Hanson, Gary Kavanagh, and Rob Peterson.