(Another entry in my "Mom 'N Pop Culture" blog that ran on the fine Roadside Online website. That's Steve Allain in the photo, playing at the Brooklyn Coffee & Teahouse, a great venue for hearing real music played by real people.)


The most courageous thing any musician can do is to get up in front of an audience and, armed only with a keyboard or guitar, sing a song they created.

There might not seem to be much of that in these days of contrived and manufactured celebrity, where talent takes a back seat to "marketability." After all, when producers can actually correct the pitch of a weak or faltering voice, even live, and layers of digitized accompaniment can add sparkle to dull songwriting, who needs talent?

Besides, who's listening, anyway? Music serves most folks simply as accompaniment to their own lives. To burst through the wall of background-noise they hear every day, a song has to catch their attention the first time they hear it blasting out of that background. It's the popular styles that do that. Who takes the time to find substance?

Some folks do. For many of them - like me - all that style only gets in the way. I recall once seeing country-star Shania Twain in concert on TV, singing her hit "Feels Like a Woman." It's hard to hear any fiddle on that song on the radio, but I swear as she danced to it on-stage she was surrounded by at least a half-dozen dancing fiddlers, all of them young, trim and movie-star handsome. Just like every fiddler I've ever seen.

The music-industry's need for overwhelming music makes life hard for the singer-songwriter. It's hard to create a wall of noise with two instruments, neither of them digitized. Yet there are so many of them writing and performing songs that need interested ears. So many of them have something to say we should want to hear.

Here in New England at least, it's easy to find places where you can do it. I spent a recent Saturday evening at one such venue, and for the price of what I was willing to drop in a hat, I was entertained, enlightened and impressed by three musicians whose talent matched many of today's music-stars, even if their decibel levels didn't.

An item of full disclosure here. One of these musicians happened to be my wife, Jan Luby. That's okay, though. I liked her music before I fell in love with her. Besides, shilling for specific musicians, or for this specific venue, is not the point here. There are literally hundreds of talented singer-songwriters for whom music is an essential avocation even if the state of the industry makes it impossible for them to make music their vocation. Some of them are brilliant - as good as any major star in the biz. And yes, some of them are awful, but no more awful than many of the frauds that have the attention of the unwashed masses.

For the record, the show I attended featured Steve Allain and GW Mercure as well as Jan. It was part of a twice-monthly series conducted by the Rhode Island Songwriters Association at Providence's Brooklyn Coffee & Tea House. As with most RISA shows, the three brought three distinct styles to the Brooklyn. Steve played music that was low-key and introspective without falling into that cloying rut that gives acoustic music such a bad rep. Besides, his acoustic-guitar playing sparkled. Jan comes from an R&B background with a heavy hit of blues. G.W. was the young guy and had that alternative thing going. Hey, I'm not a music critic here, so sorry for any cliches. The point is, I liked them all.

I liked as much the atmosphere of the show. The Brooklyn isn't much bigger than a living room, and it's just as comfortable. A coffee is a buck, and proprietor Tony makes a mean apple pie, one of which came out of the oven just as people were gathering. Just like at Grandma's.

Even better, while at a bigtime concert you get treated like cattle, and the performers are so obviously a higher form of human than us mere mortals, here we all were in it together. These performers discussed their songs while readying to play them, and the audience chatted right back at them. Someone might ask where a song-idea came from. The musicians would gladly respond, appreciating that someone cared enough to ask. Again, it was an atmosphere as comfortable as your living room. In fact at one recent show the performers chose to shut off the microphone and PA system. There just wasn't a need.

This kind of show happens all over New England - as well as across the country. But they're not hyped like the bigtime concerts. Still, I'll bet your local paper lists such shows in its entertainment section, under the dreaded "Folk" listing or maybe under "Acoustic" or "Traditional." And if you have one of those alternative papers in your area you might even find some information about performers beyond just the listings.

The point is, if you think music is worth an effort beyond swallowing what's being jammed down your throat, then it's worth a little effort to find some interesting stuff. Then the listening will come easily. Along with a good piece of pie.


The Brooklyn Coffee & Tea House is located at 209 Douglas Ave., Route 7, in Providence. RISA shows happen on the first and third Saturdays of the month and start at 8 p.m.