Three years after its ambitious move to a new venue in the Addison Street arts corridor, Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse needs dough — about $50,000, to match a grant from the Edmund and Jeannik Littlefield Foundation. The money will help cover operational costs for the 44-year-old Berkeley institution, which spent about $11.7 million to move into its new digs (including a $527,000 loan from the city). Although it’s retained an ardent fanbase, the Freight faces the same uncertainties as any arts organization. Folk artist Shelley Doty was quick to point that out during a fundraiser that the venue held last Saturday. “Support your local venues,” Doty said, appealing to an audience of perhaps one hundred people, mostly members of the Boomer generation. “Otherwise,” she continued, “you won’t have any local venues to support.”
Granted, Doty was preaching to the choir. Many fans of Freight & Salvage have patronized the organization for years, and would think nothing of shelling out $22.50 to ensure its survival. And that night’s show, hosted by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Barbara Higbie, was well worth the price of admission. Higbie had amassed a group of superlative musicians, many of them rooted in the local scene. One cited Cafe Gratitude as a place to court the muse, which elicited a murmur of affirmation from one of the upper pews. And the sentiment was contagious.
If you’re not familiar with folk music, Freight & Salvage is a good place to get a primer. It’s also arguably the best listening room in the entire East Bay, enhanced by a Meyer Sound system that fills every corner of the building without being overpowering. It has the bright, clean acoustics of a high-ceilinged church with walls thick enough to absorb the echo of a pipe organ. For a venue specializing in lean folk ensembles and lightweight string instruments, that’s fairly impressive. And it’s not lost on anyone who remembers the Freight as a funky cafe. “Is the sound out there spectacular?” guitarist Stevie Coyle asked the audience. “You know,” he continued, “sounding like you actually sound is a remarkable thing to get back to, after all these years.”
Singer-songwriter Austin Willacy, who was the night’s headliner, would concur — he’s oft described Freight & Salvage as one of the highest-caliber venues in the country. Willacy is a hippie folk singer who sounds like a soul singer, mostly because he tackles somewhat dry subject matter in a big-voiced vibrato. His opener that night was a rock ballad about consumer waste. If you read the lyrics on paper, you might have thought it was a shrill-voiced homily. But heard live, it had the cadence of a love song.
Willacy is the exact type of performer the Freight wants to spotlight: youngish, fashionable (he sported a mohawk and tiny hoop earrings, much to the dismay of an older audience member who groused that “he’s way too good-looking for that haircut”), and representative of a new folk music diaspora. His a cappella quintet, The House Jacks, has played at the Freight since 1993 and will return in early July. Willacy is a member of the Freight board and an advocate for the venue’s mission. He views his role with a certain degree of self irony: “I just wanted to warn you guys,” he admonished at the beginning of his set that night, “if you’ve never heard a black person yodel, you might want to know that I will be yodeling briefly.”
Willacy’s yodel is actually more of a wail, albeit pitched in the same bobbling, high-low syllables as a traditional Alpine village holler. Yo-del-ay-eeeeee-ooooooh, he sang, stretching the vowels with a luxuriant tremolo lacking in most. If only all folk singers were that skilled with their eees and ooooos.
While Willacy may have been the night’s star, Higbie was the pillar. She curated the event and performed in nearly every set, alternating between fiddle and piano. Her lineup included artists from a range of backgrounds — among them Scottish jazz singer Alison Burns and classical pianist Katrina Krimsky — some of who stretched the definition of “folk music.” Krimsky joined Higbie for a four-handed piano duet on a French Musette. Burns did an understated version of the Johnny Mandel standard “Shadow of Your Smile.” Higbie, who is conversant in most musical idioms, managed to accommodate all of them. When she joined singer-songwriter Steve Meckfessel for a tune inspired by famed tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, he gave a rousing introduction.
“When I first went to Barbara’s house, I was a little intimidated because there were, like, Grammy things on the wall,” Meckfessel recalled. Higbie smirked, coyly, as the audience oohed and aahed. Never one to wallow in accolades, she quickly redirected our attention to the issue at hand. Freight & Salvage isn’t about boosting individual stars, after all; it’s tasked with preserving a whole tradition.