Country Joe McDonald was sitting in the large, sunny downstairs room of Café de la Paz in North Berkeley a couple weeks ago, sipping a cup of joe. The Shattuck Avenue space, formerly known as the “Fiesta Room,” was undergoing a slow transformation: the collection of ’60s music memorabilia of the former leader of Country Joe and the Fish began to cover the walls, giving it a decidedly Berkeley political hippie vibe.
Last weekend, Café de la Paz owner Russell Bass and McDonald celebrated the official opening of Country Joe’s Cafe, a place where neighborhood musicians, artists, and activists can hang out, interact, and plan the kind of creative projects that have always made Berkeley a vital place to live. More than 150 people came out to celebrate the opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, including an appearance by Mayor Tom Bates who declared October 19 “Country Joe Day.” And it’s all thanks to Starbucks.
The idea germinated when McDonald — who’s famous for putting Berkeley’s psychedelic sound on the map — put together a presentation of songs and stories on Woody Guthrie for the National Steinbeck Center. The traveling exhibition, called This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, stopped by the cafe’s Fiesta Room about a year ago. “Russell told me if I ever wanted to use the space for something, he’d be glad to let me have it,” McDonald recalled.
Eventually, McDonald decided to put together the Guthrie material into a ninety-minute song and spoken-word piece, and booked three nights at the cafe, which sold out. About a month later, he performed three more sold-out shows, and then booked more shows with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott a few months ago. “Russell and I started talking and I told him I thought the space could become a neighborhood coffee house,” he said. “I mentioned the old Jabberwolk, the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, and the Intersection in the Mission — local places people could hang out, have coffee and snacks, maybe even see a movie. I was also looking to display my posters; I had maybe 1,000 pieces just sitting in drawers in my house. My publicist, Lee Housekeeper, threw out the idea of Country Joe’s Cafe. Tourists might even come to see the memorabilia of whatever it is I represent.”
“I liked Joe’s vision of a cultural center,” Bass said. “With the exception of the Freight and Salvage, there’s no place for acoustic music in Berkeley. We’ve had successful flamenco shows, as well as Joe’s Guthrie thing, and successful Obama fund-raisers, so we decided to move cautiously ahead with the idea.” The concept seemed to make sense, especially considering the volume restrictions with the cafe’s neighbors. “We can’t have a salsa band with a full horn section, but we’re having Scoop Nisker do a few evenings, so we’ll see what happens,” Bass continued. “We’ve talked to Steve Baker at the Freight and there’s a lot of mutual goodwill. We’re so much smaller, just one hundred seats, so we’re more of a complement to them than a competitor.”
In June, McDonald started hosting open-mic nights on the last Thursday of every month. They drew about 25 performers per evening, and a decent crowd. Bass and McDonald slowly began putting a business plan together, looking for a 2009 launch to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, when serendipity struck. The Starbuck’s adjacent to Café de la Paz closed its doors. “That’s one less coffeehouse, so let’s seize the moment and do it now,” McDonald recalled thinking. “Since we were close to the annual North Berkeley Spice of Life Festival, we thought we’d move up the opening to that weekend.” Because the cafe traditionally hosts an open mic during the festival, they used it as an opportunity to let people know about the new venue.
“We’re starting slow,” McDonald said. “If people come to listen, we’ll be successful. People can get drinks, hang out, maybe have dinner. I know the American Dream is to be successful, franchise the idea, and then sell it to a big corporation, but I’m not interested in that. I’m not a star, but I’m still in the game, writing songs and having a good time. We’re doing this for love, not for money.”