Che's Lounge: Where community & creative expression come together
"We were looking for the name of a person who stood up for the little man," says P.J. Woodford, "somebody we both idealized." In late winter, 2007, Mr. Woodford and his business partner, Danielle Dominick, chose Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara as the namesake and patron saint of their new café on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. A year and a half later, Che's Lounge (pun intended) has evolved into a haven for musicians and artists, a community living room, a cultural refuge utterly unlike any other on Martha's Vineyard.
"I love the idea of a place where people can go and sit down, share ideas, be creative, or just do nothing," says Mr. Woodford, who manages Che's while Ms. Dominick minds her other business, the Scottish Bakehouse. "And people have responded. Once people understood what we were trying to do, they gave freely of their time and resources. Not the least of which were the musicians, who've made this place their own even though we really can't reward them monetarily. The outpouring gave me a whole new level of gratitude."
To find Che's, just follow the music. There's almost always at least a guitar playing, from early afternoon on, in the intimate courtyard where café patrons are welcome to pick up one of the resident instruments and strum alone or in an impromptu jam. Chairs and tables sprawl in a cozy circle under a soaring canopy made of a canvas sail donated by boat builder Ross Gannon. The surrounding walls glow with colors sponged and patterned as a labor of love by Michele Jones, a guitar teacher and occasional performer at the coffee house. All is overseen by a mannequin or two, dressed in some period-flavored "demimonde" creation by Chrysal Parrot, Mr. Woodford's dress-making wife and mother of their daughters, Chloe and Emmanuelle.
The cloistered, curtained interior of Che's is unique in a different way. "New Orleans Whorehouse" is Mr. Woodford's catch-all name for the decor, the menagerie of vintage mahogany furniture upholstered in faded velvets, peculiar lamps and busts, and vaguely disturbing reverse-glass paintings by West Tisbury artist Richard Lee.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
It's not love of music that keeps Mr. Woodford in business; it's love of people. He sees his café as filling a much-neglected void: "Our country has become so goal-oriented, we have trouble interacting socially without having an agenda, or being in some sort of 12-step situation. We forget that life is meant to be lived in between obligations whenever we can," he says. "Europeans who come to Che's are less inhibited about wandering in, ordering espresso, and just sitting around talking. Americans see chairs and no retail agenda, no tee-shirts or souvenirs for sale, and they completely flip out." Oddly, it is the American clientele that must be taught the verb, "to lounge."
Along one wall of the café stretches the espresso bar, where fresh coffee drinks are served with sweet treats from the Scottish Bakehouse: pistachio shortbread, fudgy brownies, and addictive "hot chocolate" cookies laced with cayenne pepper. In the opposite corner is a makeshift stage. It's here that, with the aid of donated microphones, amplifiers and speakers, the magic happens many evenings each week. To set the mood, Mr. Woodford lights a jumble of mismatched, drip-sculpted candles that lend an instant Victorian warmth to the room at dusk.
Thursdays, traditionally, are Open Mic Night, beginning at 7. The unheralded local talent that wanders through the doors, or springs from the audience at Che's, is the kind of happy surprise that turns one-time visitors into regulars (and, occasionally, into performers). Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, are reserved for more formal performances - again mostly by local artists. Some nights as many as four or five "acts" will appear. Rhythm-and-poetry artists might yield the stage to a rock-and-roll band or a jazz balladeer, who will be followed by a young man with a passion for Mongolian morin khuur, a two-stringed bowed instrument akin to the cello. Latin, punk rock, blues - each has had its moments at Che's.
"There's some really good original music coming out of here," says Che's Lounge program scheduler Colin Ruel in his DocuTunes video on the café's web page (myspace.com/cheslounge). "There are folk singers and people doing weird stuff. There are some really cool bands that are not going to play at some hard-core bar. I'm really glad there's a place that feels a little hipper. There have been some really special nights here."
Indeed, a whole multigenerational community has sprung up around Che's Lounge, forming a faithful audience and talent pool for what some have begun to call the "family night club" of the Island. "I don't know what's happened lately," says Mr. Ruel, "but everyone's coming out of the woodwork with stuff, bouncing off each other and inspired by each other, especially in songwriting and music. It really feels electric around here."
With no advertising budget to speak of, and operating on a threadbare shoestring, Mr. Ruel spreads word of performances via his colorful, hand-painted posters, stapled guerilla-style to random Island bulletin boards. Che Guevara would have approved.
This past Saturday night was one of those unplanned moments for which Che's Lounge exists. With the rest of Martha's Vineyard bracing for tropical storm Hanna, the café dimmed the lights and went candlelit for the small crowd who came to hear Island-rooted singer Willy Mason. As the rising wind whipped the velvet drapes, Mr. Mason played his own compositions accompanied solely by his acoustic guitar - songs the audience knew well enough to sing along with him. For more than an hour, Islanders were drawn into a gentle chorus, bound by homegrown music, in a place founded on a dream.
Poet and artist Daniel Waters operates Indian Hill Press in West Tisbury.