Folk club weathers 30 years
The secret to the remarkable success of the Me&Thee Coffeehouse is embedded in its name. The indefatigable little club [began] its 30th consecutive season Friday [September 24, 1999], a feat nearly unprecedented for any live music venue, much less a nonprofit, volunteer-run folk club in the parish hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church here [Marblehead, Mass.].
What explains it? It has certainly had its share of major stars appear, including Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, Dar Williams and Ellis Paul.
But to founder Anthony Silva, who is known to millions as the business editor for WBZ-TV and WBZ radio in Boston, the answer has less to do with who performs than with the community of fans and volunteers who, time and again, have simply refused to let the coffeehouse close. It is to them that the Me&Thee refers, what Silva calls “the community within.”
“There have always been people willing to step up and say we can’t let this go,” Silva said, “even though there have been lots of storms come to the front doors. The real reason we’ve lasted is that people keep being drawn to what the entire idea of the coffeehouse community represents, and that is a simpler time, a more personal way to spend an evening. We share some food, some coffee, we sit around a fireplace and listen to music. What could be more simple than that?”
This should not suggest Me&Thee is not a front-rank venue. According to David Tamulevich, whose Fleming-Tamulevich and Associates is the nation’s largest folk music management agency, Me&Thee is a major player in the modern folk world.
”It is one of the premier coffeehouses in New England,” he said, “and one of the better-known folk clubs in the country. One of the real marks of how respected it is is that even established folk stars like John Gorka, Greg Brown and Cheryl Wheeler want to go back there to play.”
An evening at Me&Thee feels more like a long conversation than a concert. Most shows take place in the parish hall, which has been the site of local theater troupes since the Peabody Pew Company in the 1920s. It has a fireplace at the back of the stage, surrounded by bookcases and old pictures. The performer is less than 5 feet from the front tables. And Me&Thee (the small-case spelling is designed to keep the name from seeming too Biblical, since it is a secular coffeehouse) is known for its leisurely breaks, often lasting up to an hour, during which audience members snack on homemade pastries and visit.
”The ideal Me&Thee performer,” said Silva, “is someone who becomes part of our community for that evening, who is accessible, who comes in and enjoys being with our audience and our staff. The kinds of performers we enjoy having are the ones we could imagine inviting into our homes. And there are lots of them out there, performers who have built careers around places like this and who love to come early and stay late.”
At Me&Thee, the real stars of the show always have been the volunteer staffers, which this year number nearly 70. They are not only the people who cook the food, set up the tables, run the sound system and take the tickets, they are the core of the community that attends the coffeehouse. It always has been central to Me&Thee’s personality — and its success — that a large enough staff be recruited that volunteers know they won’t be put to work if they come to a show on a night off.
A number of volunteers gathered around a big table behind the coffeehouse recently to discuss the club’s remarkable tenure. They came from Marblehead, Lynn, Swampscott and Salem, and nary a one is in the music business.
Anne Townsend is a child and family counselor, Chris Greene a landscape architect, his wife, Jeb Kahn-Greene, a hospital planner. Ellen Witlinger is a young adult author whose new book, Hard Love, is based on a song she first heard at the coffeehouse. Pete Rogers is a human resources director, David Pritchard and Kathy Sands-Boehmer are book editors, David Jenkins, an entrepreneurship coach, and his wife, Dianne, an artist.
They were all on hand last year when it looked as if Me&Thee might not reach its 30th birthday. Asked how close it came to closing, Townsend said, “Three-hundred and twenty-six dollars, that’s how close. That’s all there was left.”
The crisis came largely because two big-name acts canceled, and the crew had to realize the club was more financially dependent on these celebrities than they thought.
“We discussed how local we were if that could happen to us,” Kahn-Greene said. “Are we just trying to draw the person who’s going to drive 25 miles to see one particular performer, or do we want to be a place that’s part of the North Shore scene, that people come to because they know what to expect? We don’t just want people coming because their favorite artist is here, but because they feel like it’s their place.”
A Web site (meandthee.org) was started, but the group also started putting up fliers around town, asking local schools for ideas on special nights students might enjoy. The fall lineup is designed to cover the folk waterfront, from hot young stars Lori McKenna and Jess Klein on Friday to Irish music legend Tommy Makem Oct. 15; from major folk stars John Gorka and Patty Larkin to the Dixieland charms of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band and the gentle balladry of Bill Staines and Jeanie Stahl.
Asked their favorite Me&Thee memories, no one waxed about catching this star or that on the way up. They spoke of moments when performers departed from their planned sets and became even more a part of the 30-year-long conversation that is Me&Thee. There was the night Sally Rogers played her first set in a full-body pumpkin costume she’d just made for Halloween, and the time Christine Lavin spent the break painting people’s fingernails.
They remembered an electrical storm knocking the power out, but Staines singing behind the mikes anyway, joking that he needed them for confidence. And British folk singer David Jones hauling most of the crowd up on stage with him to sing.
Silva recalled 83-year-old Sam Shalfin, who lived next door to the church, coaxed on stage to read his favorite poem, “Gunga Din,” and the crowd enthralled by its archaic charms.
”Those are the moments that made it clear that Me&Thee is not tied to who’s the biggest, who’s the best, who’s going to draw the most,” Silva said, “but to the feeling that this place survives because of its own community.”
”It was only a few years ago that we were members of the audience,” Pritchard said. “But after a while, it was such a friendly place, we wanted to step over to the other side and volunteer. I can’t imagine that change happening at the Tweeter Center, you know, going a few times, then being moved to want to work the refreshment stands. But there’s something about the social aspect here. The concert and the break start to feel like they’re part of the same ambience.”