Acoustic coffeehouse troubadours — aka Wimpy White Guys with Guitars — have grown accustomed to crowd indifference. Compared with the constant Lemme hear you say whoa-oh! hectoring of hip-hop shows, it is perfectly acceptable, as some rangy dude bellows a little ditty about his girl, dog, or landlord, to lazily leaf through the Sunday Chronicle, studiously plow through Winesburg, Ohio, or knit a scarf.
As I tiptoe into Oakland hotspot Mama Buzz on a lazy Sunday afternoon, three of the four folks in the front row are engaged in one of the above activities. The performer, Michael Hays (aka Pythias Braswell), is unfazed, elegantly fingerpicking his guitar and inelegantly wailing into the ether: no stage, no microphone.
Look closely, and you realize he isn’t being entirely ignored — as his tempo speeds up, so do the scarf-knitter’s stitches. Meanwhile, Liam Carey walks around with a tin of cupcakes, some frosted off-white, some chocolate with off-white lettering. I take an “A,” and now they spell “ce of Spades.”
Liam’s monthly series — an afternoon delight every third Sunday of the month at Mama Buzz — is ending after a successful year of hauling in big shots from Rogue Wave to Bart Davenport to Dave Gleason for intimate, acoustic affairs. Quitting while it’s ahead, it would appear. Today is the all-day send-off, eventually moving outdoors for a well-populated BBQ hoedown. And though the crowd mills about, chats amiably, grills up chicken patties, catches up on some reading, or knits a lovely beer cozy, a quiet intimacy prevails. Aggressive respect sometimes looks passive.
Plenty to aggressively respect, too: Lonelyhearts frontman John Lindenbaum sings sad songs with long titles (“Next Year Is Shaping Up to Be Real Awesome”) that seem to fetishize liquor-store holdups. Audio Out Send’s spacey keyboards mingle with the sizzling burgers on the grill, coloring Grandaddy-style lullabies for the hillbillies of Saturn. Quietly creepy troubadour Greg Ashley sings about lord knows what (Lead a pilgrim to the slaughter/Like a circumcision daughter) and rises to a falsetto so he can literally conduct a duet with himself. And Bart Davenport is cheesier than a Taco Bell value meal as always, but with enough sweetness and light to win you over anyway.
Liam is just happy that people show up now, although he doesn’t seem too bothered as he recalls the very first Ace of Spades in September ’04, when absolutely no one did. It was Liam, his bandmate Matt in the super-busy classical-folk outfit Mandrake, songwriter Paul Panamarenko, and the dude working Mama Buzz’ counter that day. Evidently it was a blast: No unseemly crowd noise. “I kept that as a template for what I wanted, and the really interesting thing is that the more quiet you play, the more quiet the audience has to be,” he says now. “So all of a sudden you start pulling people in in this intimate way, whereas if you go to a show at the du Nord, they crank up the volume, which is great, but then everybody’s talking, so there’s not this kind of focus.”
After watching Bart yell “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” at a bunch of chattering German restaurant patrons a while back, the appeal for folks of his ilk is understandable. “A lot of the bands that’ve played, that’s the one thing they mention that they liked the most,” Liam says. “I’ve definitely had people come and say that’s one of their favorite shows that they’ve ever played, because people come just to listen to the music, so you get good crowds and really good response.”
Ah, but the love-in is over now. “I wanted to pull it while it was still kinda fresh,” Liam says. And while relative big-shots like the Moore Brothers — whose “At Terror” leads off the new seventeen-track Ace of Spades CD, a charity deal available via Liam’s E14 Records — will certainly find warm and reverent crowds elsewhere, it kinda sucks to lose a fine venue for scouting newer talent. Sunday’s highlight actually preceded the outdoor BBQ. That was Readyville, a jovial duo that shuffled between guitar and lap steel/keyboard contraptions — Nick Palatucci banged his acoustic and shouted out rambling tunes about dead mailmen as though he were an angry dad and there was a kitchen table bearing an undercooked meatloaf between him and the crowd. Fun stuff.
As the sun went down and the party moved out to the patio, though, it felt more like a living room, a single lamp illuminating Ace of Spades perennials like the booming-voiced Brian Glazer and Sean Hayes, he of the majestic hair and ubiquitous warbler classic “Alabama Chicken” — I feel as though I’ve seen him play this song about fifty thousand times. He joined forces for awhile with fellow troubadour Etienne de Rocher, who perhaps best summed up the evening’s ethos: It’s so nice of you to stay up late and think of things to say/So we don’t have to say goodnight.
When it got too cold to continue outdoors, the whole gang moved next door to the Stork Club and whooped it up well into the night. So much for crowd indifference.