A kid in a Joy Division T-shirt follows after Celia. His name is Carlos, and he starts with a White Stripes cover. When I ask the Rev what he thinks, he looks up from his second Crown and Coke and says, “I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about beer.”
Carlos moves on to an original song called “Is She Gonna Flake Again?”
“Great title,” David laughs.
“Speaks volumes,” the Rev responds. And then, “I hear a little Violent Femmes in there.”
Adam, a guy with a full beard and a tie-dyed T-shirt, sings Neil Young and David Bowie covers. David goes home. Stickman says good-bye too.
A couple takes the stage. He with a guitar, a goatee, and superstraight bangs. She in wellies. His name is Robin. She’s Kate. They remind me of Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward from She & Him, the quiet way their voices complement each other.
“Aw, she has a ukulele,” Amanda says, “and cute little rain boots too.”
They’re the first I’d-buy-your-CD performance of the night.
When Robin says, “One more song because I have to catch the bus,” Amanda yells out from behind the bar, “Hey, somebody take him home!”
No one does.
Thursday, February 17
The girl at the counter wears her bangs pulled back in a poof. She greets me with a giant smile, which I appreciate, and tells me her name is Lacee (“two e’s,” she says). She hands me a way-too-sweet iced vanilla latte in a plastic cup, and though she doesn’t quite ask “What brings you round to these parts?” she might as well have. And not just because my husband calls this town Klantee, either.
The scene at Friendly Grounds Coffeehouse (located in a strip mall) is a strange amalgamation of senior center, coffee shop culture, and the truck-stop diners of my childhood in Idaho.
The brown–cream-blue color scheme and seating areas defined by couch, chairs, and area rugs give the place a coffee shop feel. A clean-cut man in a striped button-up shirt and olive khaki pants strums and sings on a low stage in the front corner. The songs he’s chosen (“Sloop John B” by the Kingston Trio and Jimmie Rodgers’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia”) are folksy and include lines like “The constable had to come take him away” and “When it’s roundup time in Texas, the cowboys make whoopee.” The median age of his audience is between 55 and 60.
A young guy with wooden plugs in his earlobes leans against the counter where I stand and smiles at me. “Interesting scene, huh?” I smile back and nod my head.
At a table in the middle of the room, one woman knits and one crochets. Another woman knits on a couch to the right of the door. Up front, at a table near the stage, a woman with hair twice as big as mine turns around to look at me after her male companion says something to her. He wears a trucker hat and a Bluetooth in his ear. His beard is of the chin-strap sort but long and scraggly. I’m a little bit afraid of him. She gives me a weak smile.
The man onstage steps down, grabs an offstage microphone, and says, “Hello, nice people.” He introduces himself as Tim, cohost of tonight’s open mic. “Next up we have Ralph and Sandy.”
The audience applauds.
Ralph wears a black Hawaiian shirt patterned with green vines and brown guitars. His hair is long and black. His glasses are wire-rimmed, and he carries a guitar. Sandy carries a large trapezoid of wood and strings, which she sets on a stand and begins to play while Ralph plays his guitar.
“What is that?” I ask Ear Plugs.
“I don’t know,” he says. “You should ask Justin. He’s the music guy.” He points to my left as a big guy in skinny jeans approaches. His black, blond, and red Mohawk lies flat to the right side of his head, and he wears a ring in his nose.
He smiles, introduces himself as the manger, and offers a handshake. “That’s a hammered dulcimer,” he tells me. “It’s a whole bunch of strings. She’s hitting them with little hammers. Isn’t it cool?”
We stand and watch Ralph and Sandy for a minute or two. And then because I wasn’t really listening the first time, I say, “What is she hitting it with again?”
“They’re like little sticks,” Justin says.
An older man in slacks and a sweater comes from behind Justin and says, “Those aren’t sticks, you ninny.” He shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “They’re hammers. It’s a hammered dulcimer.”
“Oh, who cares?” the man says to Ear Plugs. “It’s time for chocolate.”
Then he leans over the counter to order a frozen mocha.
The man’s name is Jerry. He and his wife have been following this Wood ’n’ Lips open mic (named after its founders Tim Woods and Walt Lipski and their band of the same name) since it began ten years ago at a Borders bookstore in El Cajon.
“Every time they move, we go with ’em,” he tells me.
Sandy steps off the stage with her hammered dulcimer. Ralph stays to play alone. He sings Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man.” A man in a tucked-in T-shirt and khakis snaps pictures with a point-and-shoot.
Jerry cuts a rug in front of the counter while he waits for Lacee to make his drink. A woman in a red sweater comes up while he dances and tugs on the hem of his sweater.
“Okay, you,” she says. “Cut it out and buy me a drink.”
Ear Plugs smiles at me. The woman is Jerry’s wife.
The audience members are good, strong clappers. When Ralph finishes his set, they hoot and holler. When Tim asks for another round of applause, they hoot and holler again. They do it one more time when Tim introduces the next act.
“Let’s welcome Big Al!”