Uncle Calvin's Friday night folk music coffeehouse has, for over twenty years, been the best place to hear acoustic music in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It's held in a church basement, but the ambience is far nicer than the ambiguous images this reference to locale might inspire one to imagine.It's got a stage perfect for this type of venue--neither removed from the audience nor like one of those Holiday Inn lounge "squares in the corner", but a real stage, set prominently. On a given night, Uncle Calvin's can have a nationally known folk artist, a leading Texana legend, a regular folkie beloved by the regulars, or a completely unknown quantity. Its guest list from years gone by includes national recording artists and people who played only one date in their lives--at Uncle Calvin's.
I arrived early in anticipation of a crowd, as my last visit to Uncle Calvin's had been to see a regionally quite popular folk artist and an up-and-coming young woman with a meanly pretty guitar and a winsome smile from Austin. That visit had involved many dozen folks in attendance, and long lines. Last night, though, the folks were by and large less familiar with the artists, and there was little in the way of lines. I listened to fellows rather older than myself exult about a recent New York folk festival they had attended. I myself have never been the folk festival type, although I am not sure what the folk festival type entails, although last night I gathered circumstantial evidence that it involves men in birkenstocks heading towards retirement age.
When the doors opened, the all-voluteer staff took our admissions, and then admitted us into the foyer outside the concert portion of the basement. I nobly resisted the outrageously saucy blandishments of a flirtatious sliced brownie, and the shameless mugging of fresh cheesecake. I had had my Subway sandwich, after all, and could not in fidelity to my relationship with Weight Watchers have indulged in such a warm embrace and delightful peck of sugar. Instead, I made my way to my seat, a table for four that I had to myself in a portion of the hall that managed to be both "in the back" and "near the stage".
I could not help hearing the couple at the next table who described to their friends how the husband had promised upon marriage that although he had his law degree, he would never be a lawyer, which apparently had made his new wife very happy. He had instead been a yoga instructor. The story evolved, though, in a fascinating twist--the couple had a child, bills came due, and the job teaching yoga at the Y was nobly given up to enter the dark satanic mill of law. Soon they had meandered on to his re-reading of Ulysses and her disdain for any fiction as a waste of time. I longed for hot chocolate, with an unformed, unrecognized longing, as I recognized that my time among the folkies made me thirsty for knowledge. I drank nothing, and said nothing, and heard no evil.
Soon they dimmed the lights, allowing the candle glow at each table share illumination with the soft spotlight. Only forty or so people had shown up, so that it was a small, congenial group. I then realized my dilemma.
For some reason, yesterday morning I could only find my sunglasses, and not my regular glasses. I will not discuss how my wife's absence might have affected my ability to find things in time to go to work. I will only report that I drove to work in my sunglasses. This proved no burden at work, as I cannot read as well with my glasses on these days in any event. I need to retune my progressive bifocals. But when I pulled up to Uncle Calvin's, I instantly realized that sunglasses might be a disadvantage in the dark, when it came time to drive on. I was undaunted, though, as I slid my glasses into the place on my shirt just below the neck, hung on a button, and went into the space with a certan style.
But I determined that I wanted to have a better view of the stage, close as it was to me. I finally put my sunglasses on in the dark. I fancied, for a moment, that I looked a bit like Lou Reed, but then I realized that I looked like pretty much who I am. I had a faint recollection that my last time at Uncle Calvin's I did almost exactly the same thing. I suppose I am just living out Groundhog's Day these days.
The opening act was Jason Eady, a thirtyish man from Fort Worth who hopped on stage with a guitar, a trucker's cap on, and a winning, polished confidence.
Although artists make a fair bit of their compensation at these events from CD sales, the host announced that he did not yet have a CD released. When he sang his first song, a strong, down-to-earth bit of storytelling, someone from the audience shouted out "better get that CD out soon!". I suspect it was a universal feeling, as he was that good.
I remember going to Uncle Calvin's when it was just two or three years old, and it felt much more
slapdash and "church basement-y" than its current incarnation. The little Presbyterian church north of Northpark Mall put it together as a modest fundraiser, but mostly so that people would have a congenial place to hear folk and acoustic music. Back in its earlier days, it featured mostly unknown artists, with a few travelling and local folks who were not then but are now "names" in this setting. So it amused and pleased me to hear both artists tonight talk about how they had hoped to get to play at Uncle Calvin's. It's a step or two up from the days when in order to play Uncle Calvin's, one largely asked if one could do so.
Jason Eady played songs about real things, with little undue flourish and no cutesy wit, but a good bit of simple insight. He said he's mastering his CD in Nashville now. He had a spare way with guitar and lyric I found appealing. I hope he does well with his CD. We called him back for an encore, and then he ended his show.
The headiner was Tim Grimm, a fellow from Indiana. I had the sensation that I have seen, met or heard him before. He mentioned that he used to live in Los Angeles, just as I did. I wondered if he had read at a poetry reading I attended at the Iguana Cafe, but I did not ask him.
He and his wife picked up house from "trying to make it in LA" to set up on an 80 acre hay farm in rural southern Indiana. He asked us if we could name five Indiana folkies, and I almost shouted out Jeff Pearce, to see if he knew of Mr. Pearce, one of the best ambient guitar artists working today, who operates in rural Indiana. But I kept my peace. I am always keeping my peace when I have a great thing to shout, but I make up for it by speaking when I have nothing to say.
Tim Grimm sang songs about reconnecting with his Indiana rural roots. He sang about the traditional folk themes of love and death and loss, as well. These words stood out for me, from one of his songs:
"The other day there was a crash
Another dreamer who's not coming back
They hung her jacket on a cross
You cross the center line we all get lost
Driving blindly we can't see the light
Driving blindly we can't know what's right"
Of course, I was wearing sunglasses, so I could relate a bit more than usual. I sang along when we were supposed to all sing along, as at Uncle Calvin's folk artists never have to worry about whether they will have audience participation. We are a good folk audience. We sang the Kingston Trio's "Mr. Reverend Black", and the part we sang in unison went:
"You got to walk that lonesome valley.
You got to walk it by yourself.
Oh nobody else can walk it for you.
You got to walk it by yourself".
I like the way that my voice does not sound so tortured and histrionic when I am singing in a relaxed way on a Friday night in unison with others. We also sang along on a song about guacamole.
I liked that Tim Grimm had a Houston friend of his, Mike Lindauer, playing acoustic bass and doing backup vocals. Mr. Lindauer apparently does this for folk artists who travel to our region--gives them a place to stay, learns the basics of a few songs, and then provides solid-sounding acoustic bass guitar. I am not much given to envy of others' gifts, but I will say that was such a cool notion that I wish I had the skills to do something similar.
The second singer always plays two half hour sets, so that in the intermission between the sets, the artists can sell CDs and the church can sell more coffee and dessert. I found, to my surprise and relief, that they sold a one dollar little fruit plate for porkers (or should I say "Razorbacks") like me. I bought a couple of Tim Grimm's CDs, and promised myself I would sign up for Jason Eady's mailing list about his CD. Tim Grimm put on a solid second set. Last Sunday, my wife brought home Johnny Cash's 16 greatest hits, and we have been walking rings of fire and trying to hit the low notes of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" ever since. Seeing Tim Grimm was perfect timing, as he looks very much to Johnny Cash for inspiration (and shouldn't everyone, musically speaking?).
I drove up Central Expressway, on which the never-ending road construction caused an 11 p.m. traffic jam. Then I slept the sleep of the folkie righteous.