Music : Local talent turns Che's into music mecca
P. J. Woodford, owner of Che's Lounge off Main Street in Vineyard Haven, sits on one of the cozy couches in his coffee shop, strums a guitar, and talks about business. "This place has never been based on any typical business model," he says. "For me, on a personal level, if I didn't own a coffee shop I'd be hanging out in one. It serves a social purpose where people can come and really connect with other people."
The congenial atmosphere and the eclectic clientele that Che's attracts seem to be as much of a draw as its coffee creations. On any given afternoon or evening you're likely to find artists, musicians, house painters, filmmakers, and fishermen gathered in an informal coffee klatch. Teens and young musicians drop in after school and often wind up engaged in conversation with any number of the older regulars.
Music has always been an integral part of Che's, whether alternative, folk, classical, blues, ethnic, or simply unclassifiable. Established Island artists like Willy Mason and Nina Violet headline shows, but you're just as likely to catch the debut performance of a high school punk rock band.
Mr. Woodford notes that, not only do local musicians perform at Che's, many of them also rehearse there and gather for a mutual exchange of ideas. He says, "Bands have formed here, relationships have started and ended here."
On Friday evening Milo Silva performed, joined later by Nina Violet on violin, Angel Russell on trumpet and Andrew Prouty on acoustic guitar. This unlikely ensemble turned out a virtuoso performance held together by the hypnotic, plaintive strains of Mr. Silva's long necked two-stringed Morin Huur.
"This is the only place where there's a celebration of truly alternative music," Mr. Silva says. "It wouldn't survive without Che's."
Mr. Silva is a self-taught musician whose fascination with traditional Mongolian music took him to the remote Asian country where he studied with master musicians. He performs mainly on the Morin Huur, or Horsehead Fiddle, a small stringed instrument that is bowed in an upright position.
Mr. Silva has played at the Mongolian capital city Opera House and Philharmonia, as well as in Woodstock, N.Y., and Boston, but he still enjoys playing at Che's. "The room feels warm and for general purposes I don't think there's much room for spite. This is the kind of place that amplifies positive emotions."
The concert at Che's had the emotional impact of a symphonic performance, with Mr. Silva's original compositions moving from a slow mournful opening tune to complicated fast-paced pieces in which one could recognize elements of the folk music of many nations, classical and bluegrass.
With its earthy colored walls and exposed rock foundation, the setting at Che's seemed to heighten the experience and encourage the crowd's involvement, especially this evening when a large standing candelabra and other scattered candles created a cozy mood.
The crowd tended to nestle together, friends or stranger next to stranger on the Victorian couches.
The performers engaged in friendly banter with the crowd in between songs, and people wandered out into the courtyard to smoke and chat with the musicians.
Upon returning to the stage last Friday, Mr. Silva presented a very short play called. "The Class Struggle" - a great example of the anything-goes spirit that defines a Che's Lounge show. Upon resuming the performance, the four musicians were joined by electric guitarist Xavier Powers, who says he learned to play blues guitar from Mr. Silva's father, the late Maynard Silva. The evening finished up with a powerful bluesy-rock crescendo.
The energy in the room was palpable, a common happening at the little coffeehouse where you never know quite what to expect.
Since reopening Che's after a six-week hiatus, Mr. Woodford has made it his mission to provide entertainment at least four nights a week. On Thursdays Che's will continue its tradition of open mic nights, Sundays will feature DJ dancing and Mr. Woodford plans to book live music every Friday and Saturday night. Eventually the space will host poetry readings and piano nights.
Work is underway to turn the upstairs area, formerly occupied by the boutique l'atelier, into a gallery and performance space. Mr. Woodford plans to feature a rotating art show, host performance artists, and screen art films. The space is also home to a music label, Sergeant Sparrow, and new music magazine with the same name, run by musician Angel Russell and scheduled to debut soon.
What Che's offers the music community is more than just a venue. As frequent visitor and performer Dan Waters says, "This is the headquarters for the music scene. These people cling together and form a life raft. They wouldn't survive without this place. P.J. has established a place where they bounce sparks off each other."
And Mr. Woodford says, "There is a core group of very successful and highly motivated musicians who are the creative vanguard of the national music scene. High school bands like Pierre have great examples of older talent to look up to and emulate. These seem to be people who put music first and monetary gains a far second. There's almost a collective consciousness and desire to create without selfish motivation."
Coming up at Che's Lounge: Saturday, Dec. 26, 8 pm, Nina Violet plays with Willy Mason, Milo Silva, and the Moonlarks. Kahoots follows. Minimal cover.