Folk music reprise enters seventh year

Harmony: Monthly folk coffeehouse in Annapolis began with church volunteers and a few musicians. Now audiences and performers are eager to attend.

March 18, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

When the lights dim in the wood-paneled circular sanctuary, tiny flames from votive candles glowing on rows of tables, the Unitarian Universalist church of Annapolis feels like camp.

And when a couple of fellows in blue jeans and sneakers take the stage singing folk songs, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and leading sing-a-longs, you wonder if you've fallen into a time warp or whether the peace and love era has resurfaced in a new generation.

Choose the latter. This is the 333 Coffeehouse.

"It's like coming up in your Volkswagen bus with your bell-bottom jeans," said Richard Poe, who travels from his home in Calvert County to take in the folksy vibes. "It's just that kind of atmosphere. It's really rare that you find a place like this."

To many who travel from around metropolitan Baltimore and Washington the third Friday of each month to the lost-in-the-woods church off Bestgate Road, the 333 Coffeehouse is just that: a rare jewel, a sanctuary where the idealism and the folk music of the 1960s have been preserved.

Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the coffeehouse that began as a hangout for locals and grew to be a prime stop on the folk music circuit, thanks to musician-host Max Ochs and an unusual band of volunteers that includes an 83-year-old bouncer.

Ask about the 333, and Ochs' thin face stretches into a grin. The coffeehouse was not his brainchild, but it has become his passion.

"I didn't know any of these people. Now I'm part of the scene," said Ochs, the 59-year-old guitarist who plays host at the event and books the entertainment.

"I get completely flooded with calls," he said, leafing through a tattered note pad filled with old phone messages. " `What do I have to do to get into your coffeehouse?' It's very rare that I will have to solicit someone."

That's not what he expected when he started. The coffeehouse was formed in 1992 at the urging of Fred Muir, the minister at the church who knew of folk music concerts sponsored by other Unitarian churches in the area.

Ochs advertised in the church for volunteers and, after attracting a handful, including his wife, Suzy, pulled together the first show with Ochs and a few of his musician friends performing.

They called it 333 to reinforce the church's address -- 333 DuBois Road -- and because it was a three-hour show the third Friday of each month for $3 (now $6).

The group has missed only one performance; the third Friday of January 1996, when the East Coast was shut down by an icy blizzard.

Things warmed up at the coffeehouse after a few months when Doris Justis, a renowned singer, played there and spread the word. About six months later, the coffeehouse was listed in the Mid-Atlantic Directory of Folk Venues.

"All the musicians from up and down the East Coast started coming," Ochs said.

Well-known artists like Tom Prasada-Rao, Magpie, Neil Harpe and Debi Smith from Four Bitchin' Babes have become regulars. They sing, sell their music and stay with the Ochses if they are from out of town.

The audience has also grown. Once it was a thrill to draw 50 people; now it's unusual if there aren't three times that many squeezing into the room to sit at oblong community tables or in rows of folding chairs, sipping coffee, tasting cake and petting Chester, the Ochs' German shepherd-Doberman mixed dog who roams through the crowd at every show.

Children, teens, baby boomers, and even a few older than that sit side by side, quietly enjoying the strummed chords, mellow voices and lyrics that paint pictures.

"Seems like a big cookie cutter in the sky came down and cut out the houses here. Everybody looks the same, it seems," Eliot Bronson and John Seay sang about life in the suburbs.

"It has the ethos of the late '60s that I really like," said Lee Cadorette of College Park. "There was a reality in the late '60s and this puts me back in touch with that. Some people believed in that and don't think it's quaint."

Hollyfield & Spruill and Jim Patchett are featured performers tomorrow at The 333 Coffeehouse, at 333 DuBois Road in Annapolis. Doors open at 7: 30 p.m. Admission is $6 or $5 for students and seniors. Visitors may bring home-baked goods in lieu of admission.

Pub Date: 3/18/99

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