Fresh grounds, fresh sounds

Coffee house scene gives musicians more space to play

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2007

What does it take to get a band off the ground?

There's the obvious: instruments, musicians and music.

There are also the elements over which the band has less control. At the top of this list of things needed for a musician to play out, is a venue at which to play and an audience to whom he might play.

Recently, peninsula musicians gained another venue for their work. Mugz Coffee Lounge has opened in the Blazy Mall in Soldotna. Nicole Watts owns and operates Mugz, and has seen a need she can fill by providing another opportunity for local acts.

"I know there's a couple places around town within Kenai and Soldotna that you can go to. We decided we have a good sized establishment we can seat quite a few and we decided we'd do a stage and get people in," Watts said.

"Personally, I am not familiar with all of the local artists and stuff, but once I started checking into it, we had a lot of good talent around here that I was not familiar with. Once we saw that I said, 'OK, we must do three nights a week.' So we're doing Friday and Saturday, and then Monday we have open mic night."

So far, Mugz has been packed for its open mics. The motto for the new coffee lounge is "indulge and relax," so the audience tends to be warm and appreciative. Most patrons are part of the college-age crowd, but Watts and her staff are beginning to see more variety in the demographic.

"We tend to have the same ones that come, but our list is growing longer and longer and longer. One night we had a lady I'm sorry I don't remember her name she teaches piano. I heard that she used to work for a symphony, anyway, and she was awesome. She started playing the piano, and next thing you know, she's playing songs, everybody's singing, and having a good old time ... Afterward she said, 'I'll definitely have to come back,' so, I loved seeing that."

Jay Smith is one of the local musicians who has been playing regularly at Mugz. He has played out in the local scene since 1973.

"It was a lot different then. There weren't that many venues to play, especially for younger people, because, you know, they couldn't go into places where there was alcohol. Now there's all these coffee shops that give great venues for young people, and everybody of all ages. We all play," said Smith.

Aside from Mugz, Veronica's Coffee House in Kenai offers regular music nights featuring local musicians, as does Kaladi Brothers in Soldotna. The Crossing Restaurant in Soldotna programs local jazz, and many of the over-21 establishments in the area have music, too.

Smith's wife, Karen, has been getting to know the music scene on the peninsula since her husband started playing. This uniquely qualifies her to book the music for Mugz.

"Most of the musicians have contacted me through the Myspace page. ... Almost everybody has a Myspace page, and has added us as a friend," Karen said.

Aside from the growing number of venues for bands, Jay Smith sees the advent of Myspace as a huge boost to the area scene.

"Most of the networking that's going on for musicians in this area, at least for musicians we know the most, is on Myspace. That's a great tool for musicians ... There's Myspace band sites that people put up. We all go to each other's and send messages, and contacts, say 'Hey, come play with us over here,' or whatever," Jay said.

As more businesses like Mugz open and draw crowds for their music events, Karen Smith notes that the faces, though young, are not always entirely new. Her own daughter, Melissa Kay, is one half of the Charmer's Daughters, who will be playing at Mugz in upcoming months.

"Now it seems like some of the kids who are playing now, their parents played years ago. So that's kind of fun. I know that Melissa's partner, Stephanie Bouchard, her dad, Cliff, was popular doing music around here. Keely Boyle, who's in town right now, part of the Old Believers, her dad was a musician. It's kind of generational," Karen said.

When asked what advice they had for musicians starting out, working to book gigs, they both advocated taking advantage at open mic events such as those at Mugz (Monday nights) and at Veronica's (Thursday nights).

"The most important thing is just to play. You know, just play and play, and get out there, go to open mic nights ... and go out and see other musicians. See what they're playing. Go to these venues, and just get to know people," Jay said.

Karen Smith started looking for bookings for Mugz at open mic nights, as well.

"Usually you do three songs at an open mic night, so it's a good place to get out your new material," she said. "If you can find any jams to go to, go to those, too. Because then you learn from people who've been doing it for a while. That's the way to go."

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