There are those for whom “The Weight” is a national anthem, an intimate song circle tops any arena show, and their preferred music is barely played on the radio. On Friday nights from early fall to late spring, home for them is the basement of a Sunapee church, enjoying a people-powered folk showcase.
Since its inception in 2004, the Sunapee Coffeehouse has welcomed familiar names like Joel Cage, Bradford Bog People and Bill Staines, who appeared Sept. 20. The high lonesome duo of Mark Mandeville & Raianne Richards kicked off the current season with a set that recalled Gillian and David on tunes like “Hard Times and Woes,” keeping a small crowd spellbound for two hours.
But open mike nights are often more enthusiastically attended. With a mix of singers, storytellers and the occasional comic, it’s a community hoot.
“You get performers who are good but don’t think they are,” said Tom Daniels, the volunteer who currently books the series. “It’s very entertaining.”
That spirit is a big part of why Randy Richards began it nearly 10 years ago.
“Having worked for Outward Bound for years, I wanted to bring the aspect of community building into any project I got involved in,” he said recently.
Richards now lives in New Zealand, where he runs a retreat center for adventure tourists, but he keeps close tabs on his creation. He ran a similar effort in Leavenworth, Wash., for nearly two decades, mainly to have an outlet to work on his musical chops.
“In Sunapee, it’s been more of encouraging the growth of others’ music and performing talents,” he said. “In that respect, it’s really been amazing to see some folks that were quite nervous to get up on stage, or hadn’t played much, who are now musical leaders in the community in one way or another.”
At the end of the evening, a hat is passed to pay the musicians; with the end of month open mic nights, money goes to an operations fund. The listening room crowds aren’t huge — a full house may reach 70 — but the audience response makes it very rewarding for artists, even if they aren’t making a lot of money. Martha Naylor, a longtime volunteer, recalled a conversation with one performer.
“He told me, ‘Playing a bar feeds my family, but this feeds my soul.’”
Ian Ethan Case, who performs on Oct. 18, is one performer who appreciates the Coffeehouse’s nurturing environment. So much that when a winter show last season was canceled due to weather, the folk jazz guitarist decided to entertain snowbound fans from his home in Boston.
“We did a blizzard fest – he streamed an online concert so people who planned to go could see him,” Daniels said. “The kid, he wanted to come. I told him, ‘On a good day, it’s two hours but this will probably take four; if you get here, you’re probably not leaving for a while.’ So he did that instead.”
Daniels lives in Bow and makes the trek to the Coffeehouse every week. He took over booking responsibilities this year. The current season’s slate of acts includes the eclectic Japanese American guitarist Hiroya Tsukamoto (Oct. 4); “sophisticated Americana” from The Twangtown Paramours (Oct. 11); and Kathy Lowe’s annual Christmas show (Dec. 20), a unique, all original performance.
“You won’t hear ‘Jingle Bells,’ I promise you that,” said Lowe, who’s also a volunteer.
Buskin & Batteau play Nov. 1, with a suggested donation of $15.
While Daniels likes having the occasional big name, his criterion for anyone interested in playing the coffeehouse is straightforward.
“If someone blows my socks off,” he said, “I book them.”