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An Old Town Melody

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Late spring sunlight melts golden across one wall of Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, the milk steamer hisses its soft "screeeee," and Jacob Wakeland edges into the side room with his guitar.

It's early May, and Wakeland has been talking himself into this for the last month. He's so nervous he looks like he could still be in high school, nothing like a 23-year-old guy who's already done a missionary trip to Ecuador. He looks like he could use every bit of moral support in the room -- and he's brought some extra. Five friends. And his brother. And his mom.

They settle toward the back of the room and watch what's become an Old Town institution, a jumble of sweet plucking and gentle melodies, occasionally interspersed with lyrics screeched, lyrics mumbled and vocalists desperately in search of a tune.

You can always get up and get a cup of coffee at the right time, regulars confide. Afterward, the applause is invariably polite. It's that kind of crowd.

In the winter, the wall of windows facing F Street steams up, spoons clink against coffee cups, and coats and scarves upholster every seatback as the room heats up. On warm spring evenings, the door stays open, music wafts out for sidewalk listeners, and a breeze drifts in.

Often, although not as frequently as before her election, Eureka City Councilwoman Marian Brady settles in to listen. "One of the things I really like about it is how eclectic and diverse it is. You might get a musician passing through from Portland who just drops in and is really excellent," she says.

Over the years, the night of the week has sometimes changed (lately it's Wednesdays, with an unrelated, gay-friendly open mic on alternate Mondays). Waves of musicians and a few poets have come and gone, but it always feels lived in and comfortable, like a slightly eccentric friend's living room.

"Old Town Coffee, it's just laid back," says Ginger Casanova, who owns Fin-N-Feather pet store in Eureka. "We had a time there when there was a real good camaraderie, with all the musicians I knew by name."

After her husband died nine years ago, just before the couple's 30th anniversary, Casanova became an open mic regular, three, even four times a week, at Old Town or Curley's, Mosgo's or Has Beans. "It was a real healing thing for me," she says. She played alone and with new friends and eventually formed a duo, Soulful Sidekicks, with Laura Hennings, a fellow musician she met at an open mic. Now they're working on their second CD. Through it all, "Old Town Coffee seems to be like a home away from home for me."

Like any well-loved home, this one has room for everyone's quirks. On the night Jacob Wakeland came to play, three or four people peered into laptops, barely looking up at performers. One listened to his own music, so loud through his earbuds that the bass reverberated two tables away.

A jittery man with a battered guitar slapped his hands against his thighs, his tongue sticking straight down, almost touching his chin.

A little girl, her pink jacket tied around her waist, swept in on silver sparkly flats, rolling her scooter beside her. She leaned on its handlebars, a steady adult beside her keeping watch, and listened for a while.

A blender roared. The scent of coffee shouldered into the air, so physical that just by inhaling, you could taste its tang on the tongue.

Up front, Emily Reinhart took photos. She's been coming for close to a year, and the generosity of the open mic got to her. "All of these people are playing for free, and the rest of us are enjoying for free," she says. And there's that old sound system, crackling.

By day Reinhart is an office assistant and computer trouble-shooter for Six Rivers Communications. In her off-time, for the right project, she's an artist with an extraordinary flair for photorealism.

At open mic, she'd found the right project. Last fall, Reinhart began getting musicians' permission to photograph them at the mic. Then, with photos at her side, she worked freehand, creating black and white portraits by dry painting with charcoal dust on paper.

Step away a few feet and the portraits look like photos, but close in, Reinhart's handiwork is clear. She's selling them to help buy the performers a new sound system.

Around the brick walls of the side room at Old Town Coffee & Chocolates, musicians peer down from Reinhart's portraits. There's Lester, about to bellow his newest iconoclastic lyric. Ginger, smiling. Charlie, his vest hanging loose, a harmonica at his chin (This week's cover.). Bob, always ready to back up someone else on violin.

Reinhart wants to portray around 20 regulars, and she's only halfway through. She's selling the finished ones for $50 each -- "so underpriced," sighs open mic emcee Mike Anderson, shaking his head.

Anderson runs the sound, keeps the sign-up sheet -- no one ever signed up to go first, so now it starts at No. 2 -- and respectfully shepherds newcomers and old-timers through their 10 or 15 minutes at the mic. "It's amateur hour," he says. "I'm not expecting anyone to be Beyonce."

One by one, they step forward, HSU math professor Marty Flashman, with a swinging "Ain't She Sweet;" the jittery fellow, who sticks his tongue out when he's not singing, and looks up at one point to ask, "How many of you guys have quit doing acid?"

Back in his corner, Jacob Wakeland has been getting a little less nervous. "Being in front of people in general is a small fear of mine," he confided later, especially public speaking or anything in a spotlight. But this place just felt comfortable. He'd come here as a kid. And "after watching some of the weird performances, I wasn't feeling too bad."

Still, when Wakeland sits down up front, beside the now-darkening windows, his fair skin flushes. He smiles, and ducks his head. His friends have told him he's good, but this is a more impartial audience.

"It's my first open mic tonight," he says, and starts to sing.

Amid the chatter, the kitchen noise, the guy still wearing earphones, people listen.

Old Town Coffee & Chocolates' weekly open mic begins at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday, and runs until 8:30 or 9 p.m.

 

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