Thursday, September 3, 2009

New season takes flight at Finch Coffeehouse

Finch Coffeehouse is more than just a collection of folkies whooping it up in the basement of a Unitarian church, playing to post-hippie audiences hopped up on so-so coffee and chowing down on brownies that don't have the kick we may or may not remember from the old days. But the venue, does feel like "old Newburyport," says Finch founder and manager Karen Dardinski, recalling, at least in spirit, the sense of community from the fabled old days of the late '70s, when artists hung out and created, when they could afford to live in the city.

The venue is coming off a wildly successful opening season, one that saw, despite the down economy and virtually no budget, mostly sell-out shows that included local favorites like E. J. Ouellette, circuit regulars like Harvey Reid and Joyce Anderson, and suddenly on-fire national acts like the Eilen Jewell Band — a success for which Dardinski, a visual artist who managed the Firehouse Gallery for 15 years and operated a Port catering business, takes absolutely no credit. "It's really been a surprise," she says. "It's been wonderful, every part of it. I've been lucky. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm a caterer. I know how to throw a party, but that's all."]

[When she launched the coffeehouse last year with Sue Ann Pearson, who has since moved on to manage the Lowell Folk Festival, the Finch concept was simple: To keep live music alive — and, with 15 buck tickets, affordable. She looked for a space where expenses would not crush the dream, and she got it from the First Religious Society, for low rent. She lined up Tom Eaton, owner of the Tannery-based Thomas Eaton Recording, to do the sound. “Good sound was crucial,” she says. Then she started contacting performers and offered them a nice space with good sound and short pay and figured they would politely turn her down, but no one did. She did the food herself.

The Finch is familiar, but different. It’s not Me & Thee North or New Moon East, it’s not just usual suspects. Good as they are, how many times, and in how many different venues, are people willing to see, say, Bill Staines or Bob Franke — not to single these guys out, but to point to somewhat ubiquitous faces in a close scene. The sophomore season will open with Les Sampou, a folkie whose sound is infused with a rock and blues vibe, and include shows by The Serfs, accordion-slinger Gary Sredzienski’s surf-rock band, as well as a long-overdue reunion of Roll & Tumble, the Newburyport-based acoustic blues band that kicked up a lot of dust in the late 1990s. They’ll be the opening act for the Justin Quinn Band, an electric blues band. The season will also include local heroes like singer-songwriter Kate Redgate and crowd favorites like Mark Erelli, David Surette and Susie Burke. Other acts on the horizon include the Gibson Brothers, a bluegrass band, and singer-songwriter Tracy Grammer.

The venue, which has acquired non-profit status since opening, is also looking at reaching out into the community: synching up the music program with cash-strapped schools, providing master classes for adults and advanced students — even, some time in the future (“after we get a lot better at this,” says Dardinski), putting together a folk festival.

Ironically, the best memory from the season for Dardinski comes from the New England Troubadour show, featuring Joyce Anderson, Harvey Reid, Dave Surette, Susie Burke, Justin Quinn and Susan Levine — the one concert where they overreached, staging the show upstairs in the church, since they expected big numbers that did not materialize. The image that stays with her is Anderson sawing away on her fiddle, playing with her young child in a papoose, dozing while she played. But it was the feel of the performance that made the show truly memorable: “It felt like jamming on the back porch and that’s what I was looking for,” says Dardinski. “ I wanted to develop a community, and I think we've done it. It feels really good.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Les Sampou opens the second season of the Finch Coffeehouse at 8 p.m. September 18 at the First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport, or at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m. Coffee, light fare and desserts are available. For more information, log onto

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