The Roots Cafe is roots-music heaven in a church hall

Venue books national and regional bands

Scene: clubs, bars, nightlife

October 23, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

The choice Baltimore venue for many roots musicians may surprise you.

It's not a smoky back room bar or an ultra-hip scenester club.

One of the city's hottest venues for Americana lies within the walls of a tiny house of worship.

The hall at St. John's United Methodist Church, located in Charles Village at the corner of 27th and St. Paul streets, has been housing the Roots Cafe concert series for more than a decade.

It all began when a group of friends decided to create an event that would focus on good times and good music. The church hall was a perfect location: a large and smoke-free dancing space where people of all ages were welcome.

Allison O'Brien, one of the concert series' founders and current Roots Cafe public relations guru, said that the positive vibe has attracted the attention of nationally known and regional roots music bands - even if the shows are run on a "less than shoestring" budget.

"We've got a really good reputation," O'Brien said. "In general, almost every band that plays with us comes back, even though we can't pay them as much as they would like to get."

Co-organizer Ken Delaney agreed and said the task of booking is not as tough as it was in the early days. In fact, musicians now approach him for shows.

"We get a lot of bands that seek us out," he said.

Popular acts such as Boston's Tarbox Ramblers have played more than once at the Roots Cafe. The series continues Saturday when Pennsylvania folk-rock act Frog Holler takes the stage at 8 p.m.

Though wrangling great bands has gotten easier, roping in the crowds has not.

The concerts, which have attracted as many as 150 people per show, now bring in about 100 patrons on an average night. And lately, the attendance slump has gotten progressively worse.

"The last couple of years have been really rough," Delaney said. "We've had a tough time getting people to come out like they used to."

The lower numbers have perplexed Delaney, who noted the $8 ticket price and casual, non-threatening environment as some of the series' selling points.

"It's a much more affordable experience, for one thing, [and] you can bring your kids," Delaney said. "It's a good way to expose the whole family to roots music."

O'Brien said their limited budget and marketing resources may be a factor.

"Since we're all volunteers, and we work, it's hard to find the time to get things done and get the word out," O'Brien said.

Despite that challenge, she and Delaney remain dedicated to the series and are optimistic about the future.

"It gets harder and harder, but I really hope it lasts," O'Brien said.

Delaney agreed and said he's in it for the long haul.

"I'm willing to do it as long as it stays viable. It's just a really nice thing for the ... community," he said.

St. John's United Methodist Church is located at 2640 St. Paul St. Tickets are $8 for adults, and admission is free for kids age 12 and under. Shows begin at 8 p.m. and are usually held on the second and fourth Saturdays from September to April. For more information on the Roots Cafe, call 410-880-3883 or visit www.rootscafe.org.

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