Moorestown DeCafe: A Brief History…
I’m a child of the 60s. I wore my hair long with a center part. My uniform was a black turtleneck and slim pants, ala Audrey Hepburn. I listened to cool jazz and earnest folk music on my portable stereo and attended concerts at the local coffee house. My venue of choice was a church basement, but coffee houses were a common scene, scattered all over Philadelphia and the sprouting suburbs of southern New Jersey.
At my huge high school, I sometimes felt almost invisible among the sea of students. But, at the coffee house, I discovered other music lovers. Being there and sharing that passion made me feel like I was a part of something unique.
Regardless of who was playing, those shows felt special. Instead of watching from across a vast expanse, you experienced the music in an intensely personal way. And, while I definitely have reveled in my share of arena style shows – think The Who, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Springsteen, for example – I still prefer live music in a more intimate setting.
Over the years, many small music venues have disappeared. Coffee shops often feature live music and there are still places where the performer is the primary event. But, other than a handful of old-school jazz clubs, there aren’t that many options for those who yearn for a specific type of concert experience.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that Moorestown DeCafe, the music performance program at Perkins Center for the Arts, is alive and thriving!
This series got its start 18 years ago, when 8 music-loving couples ran with the idea of presenting regularly scheduled live music performances in the garage/dance studio on the Perkins’ grounds. They started on a shoestring, furnishing the small room with discarded utility company wire spools and draping Indian-print bedspreads on the tables and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It took some time for the word to get out. “At first,” one of the founders told me, “we each had to promise to call 5 people and invite them to come.” But before too long, the program took hold and the committee made the decision to partner with Perkins and move the concerts into the “big house”.
These DeCafe concerts are definitely reminiscent of those coffee house shows I remember. The stage is set in what was the original living room of the house (named “Evergreen Lawn” when it was built as a wedding gift for Alice and Dudley Perkins in 1910) and across the hall is the dining room, where concert goers can enjoy an assortment of snacks and drinks … coffee, tea, hot cider, fresh fruit, brownies, cookies, small éclairs, cheese and crackers … you get the idea.
Initially, I went to a DeCafe show last fall because a favorite artist, Don Dixon, was on the bill. I’d seen Dixon once, many years ago in a round-robin format with other singer-songwriters, and his combination of quirky wit and virtuosity stuck with me. The chance to see him again, at a reasonable cost and in a convenient location, was very appealing.
Within moments of arriving, I ran into a pair of friends there. From our conversation, it became apparent that my friends were DeCafe regulars, as I imagine were many of the people in the room. And, while I’m sure the audience was filled with Dixon fans, I’ll bet that more than a few had come simply for the experience.
I went back again to bring some warmth to the winter with a performance by local purveyors of the New Orleans sound, Zydeco a-Go-Go. Again, I saw old friends and familiar faces. And, again I noticed that, while some folks had come specifically because this band was playing, it was clear that many people were there just to soak up the vibe.
Moorestown DeCafe is not just a venue, but it’s what a “real” coffee house has always been – a place to gather, have a bite to eat, catch up with friends and neighbors, and share the mutual love of music. And this serves an especially vital function in the suburbs, where neighborhoods are more diffused. In a city, there are often a number of places to meet friends or see a band. In the outlying areas, however, the choices are more limited. That’s one main reason that the DeCafe is such a jewel.
Some of the DeCafe founders have moved away or moved on, but a solid core crew is still in place. They meet regularly and, in June, come up with the upcoming season’s schedule. Every show is hosted by a different person, who is responsible for handling the arrangements with the artists and coordinating other details. This rotation produces an eclectic line-up – everything from truly local acts, like someone’s neighbor, to major artists drawn to a venue that provides a more personal approach to performing.
Perkins takes care of selling tickets, both in advance and at the door, and promotes the DeCafe shows on the web site, in advertising, and in printed materials. In return, the committee gives Perkins a portion of the proceeds.
This season, Moorestown DeCafe presented Kurtis Lamkin, Don Dixon, Sharon Little, and Zydeco a-Go-Go. Coming up on February 25 is Mark Silver and the Stonethrowers, who recently appeared on Gene Shay’s folk show on WXPN. The final concert for this season, on March 18, will feature Burning Bridgit Cleary, a Celtic band fronted by two female fiddlers, described on the DeCafe site as “known for its exhilarating shows and the driving beat that anchors most of its music.”
Tickets are $15 each and can be ordered in advance and, subject to availability, purchased at the door. The doors open at 7:30, and the show begins at 8:00. And the drinks, treats and ambience are included.