Strong Roots Keep The Music Rolling
It all started with a simple idea: Organize concerts where bands could play, all ages could attend, a no-smoking policy ensured that the space wouldn't be unbearably musty, it would end by midnight, and people could dance. Plus, have it in a lovely old church in Baltimore City--St. John's at 27th and St. Paul streets. Best of all, the evening's entertainment wouldn't set you back an arm and a leg.
Today, 11 years after debuting, the Roots Café and the Society for the Preservation of American Roots Music have established themselves as a burgeoning regional venue and organization with a growing national reputation. Roots started catering primarily to local and regional acts--and not only bands that played the so-called "roots" music, a vague term that covers anything from guitar-based folk rock to insurgent country. Local Latin-tinged jazz ensemble Rumba Club has made appearances. The Charm City Klezmer gets everybody to polka. The Diane Froley 3 has dropped twee country-pop on Roots Café audiences; the Irish-flavored spunk of Donegal X-Press has charmed attendees as well.
But the truly remarkable fact is that the Society and Roots Café are self-sustaining operations that are run and staffed entirely by volunteers. Every dollar the Roots Café concerts bring in goes into running the Society and staging the 15 concerts it puts on annually (seven in the spring, eight in the fall).
"We have to take costs into consideration when planning things," says Ken Delaney, an Annapolis resident who books the Roots Café (when he's not working as a contractor helping the Whole Foods Market/Fresh Fields chain open new East Coast stores). "Fortunately, we seem to be developing a good reputation with musicians, so a lot of time people have heard about us and contact us, which is really nice.
"I think bands realize it's not the [usual] adversarial relationship between club owners and musicians. We're doing it because we really love the music and we love doing this, but we don't need to make any money. We just need to cover expenses and pay the band. And I'd say that 95 percent of the time, if not more than that, musicians are happy and want to come back to play."
"One of the basic premises is to keep the concerts about the cost of a movie"--$8 for all shows, says Allison O'Brien, a Crofton-based freelance photographer who handles PR for Roots. "While we'd like to get bigger acts, we only have so much space. And we work with a fixed admission price, That's how it's going to be. People have told us to get some big-name band and charge $15, but that's not what we do."
O'Brien has been involved with the Roots Café since its incendiary spark--Baltimore-based writer and City Paper contributor Geoffrey Himes' 1989 wedding reception at the Polish National Alliance Hall in Fells Point. O'Brien and other attendees who appreciated the reception's feel-good vibe wanted to re-create this mix of music, all-ages dancing, and good cheer on a regular basis and open it to the public.
"We just thought it was great that people of all different ages were hanging out together and having fun, and we thought we should really do something like this more often--but Geoff couldn't get married every month," O'Brien says. "Geoff pulled some musicians in, and we had a couple of meetings. And Geoff knew some people at the church, and it just sort of blossomed from there."
Delaney, serendipitously, came into the fold during the inaugural 1991 season. "The first time I went was the first Bill Kirchen show," Delaney says. "A friend had told me, 'It's kind of like the [now-defunct Bethesda club] Twist and Shout, but it's a better space.' So I got to the door and ran into Allison, who I knew in college. It was weird."
Delaney and O'Brien had worked together as undergraduates at the University of Maryland at College Park, booking shows for the campus' Glass Onion Concerts series. Delaney had lost contact with O'Brien after she graduated in 1985 (he remained at Maryland until '88).
"He walked in the door [at the '91 Kirchen show] and I said, 'You're hired,'" O'Brien laughs. "When I started telling him about what we were doing, I was almost positive he'd want to get involved. And I was happy he did. He took over all the booking and he's enabled us to grow the way we have."
With Delaney, O'Brien, and a committed core of a dozen-odd volunteers who donate their time and minds to the endeavor, Roots Café has flourished. (Disclosure: Among the regulars is CP online editor Tim Hill, who runs the society's Web site and does graphics work, such as designing T-shirt.) Honky-tonk guitar showman Kirchen--who has played Roots Café every year since its inception--is always a good draw. Arizona folk combo the Mollys have brought their rowdy, Hispanic-flavored sounds. And last September, Roots Café welcomed Amy Rigby and former Dream Syndicate frontperson Steve Wynn to Mobtown.
The venue's blossoming ability to draw acts with regional and even national followings has created coveted opening slots for local artists. This week, Roots Café welcomes back the Silos, a contemporary rock outfit with a Southern undertow that recalls the garrulous grit of the db's, the True Believers, and Drivin' N' Cryin'. Local stripped-down country rockers the Anomoanon (which features CP contributor Ned Oldham) will lead off.
But the clash between Roots Café's rising profile and its limited schedule does pose booking problems. The church is only available every other weekend, and the society won't book shows in the summer because the hall lacks air conditioning.
"It's kind of frustrating for people who want to play with us because we don't do it year round," Delaney says. "We're booking way ahead of time--about four to six months in advance--and in chunks. Sometimes when I talk to people, it may take six months to a year just to get them to play because of the logistics of touring. And it's a Saturday night, which is a big money night for bands. So we may have to go after somebody for two or three years before it finally works out."
Even with the café's modest overheard, its not always easy stretching show revenue to cover expenses--space rental, band stipends, printing costs, postage for its newsletter. Every other aspect of the operation--from the people who write the mailer to the people staffing the gigs--gets done because the volunteers enjoy the shows.
"There are times when we have been fairly broke," Delaney says. "We've had a couple of benefits. We've had a benefit for the [St. John's Church homeless] shelter, a benefit for the church, and one time we did have a benefit for ourselves. But it's basically the core of volunteers who keep it going and hold it all together. We just feel really blessed to have all the people working with us that we have."
The Silos and the Anomoanon play the Roots Café at St. Johns Church (27th and St. Paul streets) Feb. 23. Call (410) 880-3883 or visit www.rootscafe.org for information.