Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Pyper's Place

Graphics by Paula BishopLocated in Asheville's historic Montford district, Pyper's Place is a fairly new entrant in the neighborhood café business. And Pyper’s is quickly becoming a right fine jamming venue for the enjoyment of superb old-time music.

It was on Valentine's Day 2003 that Irish-born café owner and namesake Irene Pyper quietly launched her labor of love and, with little fanfare, opened the doors to food and music lovers. Followed by a more formal opening later in May, Pyper has pulled together a curious assortment of elements to realize her vision. Situated down the middle distance on Montford Avenue now lies a pleasant little café with many brilliant features to recommend it.

The street out front allows close-by parking for about as many people as the café can comfortably hold; and the doors are open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. The compact space inside is well-appointed with heavy, wooden tables in the dining room; comfy, padded chairs and sofas near the wood-burning fireplace in the rear lounge; a handsome service counter and kitchen; and thoughtful, interesting décor throughout.

À propos is the row of old-fashioned tea and coffee makers on a thin ledge high along the wall up near the decorative, pressed-tin ceiling. Tastefully strewn about are various 'objêts d'art' suggesting a nascent museum; among them is a display case of fine china, a bevy of iron Guinea fowl and a stuffed, full-size woollen zebra. Pyper's late mother's umbrella stands humbly at the front door forever at the ready should the weather become, shall we say, more "Irish". You can check your email from an oak phone booth in the main room or cozy up to a low reading table near the front window. The New York Times or the English Guardian Weekly are on sale at the register and an array of free local papers are grouped along the wall opposite.

The culinary offerings at Pyper's Place have a decided upmarket character. The menu is definitely BYOM (Bring Your Own Meat). On the largely organic menu are gourmet teas and "fair trade" coffees, home-made soups, sinful desserts and pastries, Italian smoothies, beers, fine wines. Try the house specialty: Pyper's panini with pesto and roasted garlic. Or a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with amoretto wine and bazzini (come to Pyper's to find out what that is).

Tea is served loose and hot in small ceramic pots delivered to your candlelit table on a tray (try Pyper's Special Mix). Champagne is available nightly. But beware: the so-called “Pyper’s Burger” is made of suspiciously meat-like Quorn™ (that’s fungi mycoprotein to you and me). The straws and takeaway flatware are made from food starch and all the water is filtered—even the ice is made from filtered water!

Aproned baristas will take your food and beverage orders at the counter. (Don't take a number, just be polite and wait your turn). Service is generally down-scaled and customers soon learn to pitch in themselves to get through their meal. Get up to order; get up to salt your salad; get up to cream your coffee; and get up to tip a jar not your table: get up John.

All that 'gettin' up' amounts to a lot of activity in a small space already crowded with oversized tables, hefty antiques and thematic bric-a-brac. This is all very well if you don't mind an atmosphere with people bustling about a lot. So, along with the hissing and burbling of cappuccino-making, the sound of frequent chair-scooting becomes equally ambient.

Then there's the music. Ah, the music! Yes, Ms. Pyper-Scott has chosen to incorporate a schedule of live music in the mix offered at her place that happily includes a bit of old-time.

On certain Friday nights the mood is mountain high as Pyper’s Place becomes a sometime pickin’ parlor. And people who love acoustic old-time music can get their honey straight from the comb when some of the best local talent that ever played a corner sets up in the front of the house. This often occurs with little advanced notice or, at times, with players left unnamed to be later assembled by the headliner when the performance date comes nearer.

Gordy Hinners and John Herrmann.  Photo by Tim Peck.Sawing on the strings some nights might just be a sage John Herrmann. Herrmann contributed his considerable talent and knowledge of old-time to the original Cold Mountain soundtrack entitled “Songs from the Mountain” where he joined Dirk Powell and Tim O’Brien on a more authentic musical project. Herrmann has become something of a regular at Pyper’s Place, projecting the serene presence of banjer zazen. He is currently working with fiddler Rayna Gellert on their Afrolachian String Band project, currently performing at the Westville Pub. Rayna likes to fall by Pyper’s from time to time as well.

Cary Fridley.  Photo by Tim Peck.Belting out a bit of high-lonesome, you might also find a diminutive Cary Fridley leaning hard on her upright bass (or vice-versa). Fridley voice is as distinctive and appropriate in her genre as Sting or Jon Anderson are in theirs. After her stint with the fabulous Freight Hoppers, Fridley recorded a fine old-time solo album entitled Neighbor Girl that hearkens back to the very nub of mountain singing. She is presently a member of Devilish Mary, performing around town; sometimes on sidewalks without notice (very devilish). Fridley has recently graced Pyper’s Place, joined by banjo-picker Robby Robertson, to lend her extraordinary vocals to some quite sensitive and moving arrangements.

Other nights, banjo master Gordy Hinners might just scratch one off workmanlike as you sip and sup. The unassuming Hinners is not shy about frailing and is known to bring famed flatfooter Phil Jamison in for a set. Jamison teaches flatfoot dancing at Warren Wilson College, and helps direct the Swannanoa Gathering and writes for The Old Time Herald.

Don PediA jolly Don Pedi may fervently strum out a dulcimer tune from time to time. Pedi skips along the old-time circuit like a slick stone on a calm lake. You can find him at the Swannanoa Gathering, at the old train depot in Marshall sitting in with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, on an old friends porch, or in a movie like The Songcatcher. He has quickly become a Pyper’s Place favorite.

The resident group The Peg Twister might take a turn. On banjo, guitar, fiddle and vocals, Bob Gregory, Jerry Sutton, and Dona Cavanagh unwind with simple tunes and simple melodies that compliment many a pleasant evening at Pyper’s.

And what a pleasure it is. To be at Pyper’s Place on those Friday’s is to be at that other home. The all-night trance-inducing drone of authentic, old-time acoustic string music in this intimate space can transport you from a smallish, trendy Euro-café to a piney-wood cabin in your heart. It’s enough to make you hallucinate a goat. The surrounding mood slips into something casual and comfortable. Indeed, certain patrons are known to bring their knitting and pull on their own set of strings. Other musicians will likely stop by to take a listen and join the menage in dropping tips into the teapot bearing a sign enscribed "Feed the Artists."

Me?—I’ll have a little friendly conversation and some Welsh rarebit with my "Squirrel Heads and Gravy,” thank you very much.

'Squirrel Heads and Gravy' from 'Walking That Banjo Back Home' by Mary Z. Cox [MP3: 'Squirrel Heads and Gravy' by Mary Z. Cox]

Occasional hot rhythms can prompt you to your feet, but you’ll have little room for dancing; unless you want to buck dance all the way back to the ample unisex bathroom. And if the bathroom is occupied, take a seat in one of the old wooden fold-down movie theater chairs nearby and give it a minute.

From the beginning, proprietress Pyper has maintained a diverse musical schedule at her Pyper’s Place. On different days you may hear classical, Celtic, swing, jazz or some variety of folk. You can attend shows featuring harpist Billy Jackson, singer Laura Boosinger, the Asheville String Band or flute duets by Clifford Tretick and Barbra Baker. You’re even likely to hear Irene’s own recordings piping through the sound system captured from a lifetime of traditional ballad singing in every English-speaking country.

But what's more, this café has embraced a mix of musical expression that happily makes wide room for those forms long familiar to the rustic ears of Western North Carolina. And Irene assures us that the future holds for more of the same. With some help from long-time friend and musical collaborator Peggy Seeger, as well as many newer acquaintances, she has plowed into deep connections here in Asheville ensuring that a regular schedule of old-time talent will be on hand.

And Pyper's Place shows no signs of slowing down. From its early tenuous beginnings last year up to today, Irene Pyper-Scott's vision has slowly materialized as she once saw it. The café now has grown from goodfellow word-of-mouth to the settled fullness of dedicated patronage.

As you might expect, some concerns have been raised regarding new competition from a pending Starbucks rubber stamp rollout in the city. Pyper remains unmoved, solid in the conviction that her café fills a felt need and is somehow uniquely fitted to its home in this vibrant town. Frankly, I don't imagine I'll hear many grinding fiddle tunes or clawhammer breaks resonating from a Starbucks drive-thru window in Biltmore Village. But then I expect our diverse community can comfortably contain both of these. Asheville contains multitudes.

At first blush, a sophisticated coffee bar might seem an odd setting for a rough-hewn old-time set. But Pyper's Place is well in keeping with Asheville's penchant for eccentricity and any initial sense of atmospheric dissonance can easily dissipate. Here, a bit of flavour from the Old Country meets a speck of grit from the New. And you can make the crossing in the space of a hour - or however long your latte stays warm. At present, this seems the only place in Asheville where you can drink champagne by candle-light while listening to "Coo-coo Bird" rendered by a local first-class old-time ensemble.

It has been said that "appetite furnishes the best sauce." True enough--and Pyper's Place does a dandy job of furnishing the rest. But if your appetite extends (as mine does) to a craving for a little taste of old-time jam, don' t fret: the dual natures of Pyper's on Friday fit quite nicely on the same plate.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

King Pup Radio Show

Phil and Gaye JohnsonI was happy to travel the lonely distance from Hendersonville to Spindale, NC, home of college radio station WNCW, to see a live taping of the King Pup Radio Show this November. This show was only available on the internet until WNCW took to broadcasting it on their Sunday morning lineup.

King Pup is the brainchild of the genial Carolinians Phil and Gaye Johnson who produce the show to mimic the "opry" style of entertainment programming. They themselves refer to the show as "small-time opry" and sitting in the library auditorium the night of the taping demonstrated to me just how small. The crowd assembled on the first of the two scheduled nights was more akin to a "friends and family" sized gathering. But the show must go on and Phil Johnson advised the handful of scattered attendees to applaud and cheer with greater gusto than usual to hopefully compensate for the poor showing. After all, the taping is audio only and stretching the bounds of enthusiasm is all part of the show.

Long a staple of the Western North Carolina old-time music circuit, the Johnson’s were in fine position to fill the bill with local talent for two nights of taping. Some raw and unknown, others familiar and masterful, and the rest filling in the middle.

Phil and Gaye would start things off with a big King Pup intro (“It’s a new day now.”) followed by a musical set of their own. Then each of four bands would perform a set. Phil and Gaye would return to their stage-right microphones after each band for a few delicate and divine duets while the next band set up, giving them a total of four mini-sets.

Normally the sight of unkempt sound engineers and scrambling pickers would be a distraction but in this case we were all in on the illusion and I was pleased to see the production proceeding apace with nary a hitch. Spotlit downstage, Gaye sweetly warbled standards such as “Angeline,” “Frankie and Johnnie” (“he was doin’ her wrong.”), and that spelling song where the end of each line is spelled out (“they had the brass to say they’re S-A-V-E-D.”).

When it came time to let the other bands to take center stage, Phil introduced each with a “big King Pup welcome” soliciting riotous applause and then retreating to the sound board or some darkened corner of the auditorium. Gaye cheerfully took a seat somewhere near the front to watch the King Pup Radio Show unfold in real time.

Donna HughesThe performances were generally good and some were indeed quite excellent. The lineup was as follows: The Donna Hughes Band, The DesChamps Band, Campus Tradition, The Kilocycle Cowboys, The Cockman Family Band, County Farm, Alternate Roots, and Tommy Edwards & Friends.

A few bands had CD’s for sale while others had none. There was also the occasional website mentioned. I especially enjoyed mingling with the performers during the hushed intermissions.

Best of all, the bands played their hearts out for two great nights of informal music making all brought together a warm and sincere couple in the context of a great performance concept: King Pup.


[Submitted to the NCMAMA newsletter "Mama Says."]

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Alison Brown Quartet

Alison Brown7pm, October 9, 2003, Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, Asheville, NC. I backed into a premium spot in the parking lot of the Grey Eagle Music Hall with great eagerness to find the lot empty but for two others and the lobby darkened, silent and inactive. I hate being too early. But tonight the Alison Brown Quartet would play to the small audience that the Grey Eagle would allow and I thought I might chat it up with a few fellow fans before the big crowds would gather for the 8:00 show.

As I sat in silence for a moment, a rather non-descript van pulled in to sidle up to the front door. A man with long brown hair stepped out to open the rear doors of the van. It was John R. Burr, keyboardist extraordinaire for the Quartet. I’d recognize that stringy mane anywhere.

Soon after, bassist and hubby Garry West joins Burr and drummer Kendrick Freeman to help unload odd bits of equipment in the hushed parking lot. A strikingly slender, blondish woman emerges from the front passenger seat. It is Alison Brown in faded jeans. Business-like, she opens the side door of the van to reveal a small child in a car seat who begins to utter a few baby-squeaks as she manages to dive forward and release the child into her arms and then into a stroller.

So, the band is all here -- and baby makes five. And, for tonight at least, the famed jazzy, grassy foursome is become the Alison Brown Quintet.

As the band quickly sets up to compensate for their late arrival, I take a plate in the club’s unpretentious Sassafras café. An even less pretentious barkeep serves a taste of stale coffee. The occasional thump and pluck from beyond the divider curtains tells me that the assembled music-makers are making progress. But 8:00 comes and I have seen two, perhaps three couples dribble in to the theater. Is the Asheville community too nonchalant to arrive on time? Are the band’s fans so jazzy and cool that they insist on arriving fashionably late? The club owner explains that “some ads say 8:30.” Very well, 8:30 it is.

By 8:30 a few more couples and others saunter in to the auditorium to take their seats. The crowd now totals just under twenty; myself included. Whatever has happened here?

Not to appear despondent, drummer Freeman coolly and cheerfully steps onto the stage and takes his perch at the cornered drum-set. The remaining three-quarters of the band soon followed on and began the casual rumble of tuning and testing. At times betraying a new composition.

The band is ready; with Burr on a small electronic keyboard unit, Brown with her banjo in hand and a guitar at the ready, West on electric bass and Freeman exposed behind a smallish set of drums, congas, cowbells and cymbals. Little Hannah is never far in her closely-attended stroller.

The always chipper Alison Brown approaches her microphone to thank everyone for coming to the show. Light laughter ensues and Brown apologetically informs us that tonight’s show will be “intimate.”

And intimate is was. The Alison Brown Quartet are professionals and craftsmen of the highest order and they quickly laid into their set with superb renditions of those favorites found on their recent Compass Records release entitled Replay, described in the liner notes as “playful, swinging and sweet . . . The musicianship, of course, awesomely accomplished . . . These are exquisite celebrations of simple pleasures.”

And the pleasures were all mine. The mastery and creativity gushed out into the audience like a waterfall of joyful noise.

In between the spray and mist, Alison would pad the set with bits of background. She reminded the spare audience of her former stuffy occupation in the Wall Street bond market and of her easy conversion to bluegrass babe as an early Alison Krauss banjoist. She explained the curious origins of the Wonderful Sea Voyage of Holy St. Brendan who set out for the Americas in a leather boat. She found a relaxed moment to introduce the fifth member of the quintet: Hannah, her toddling daughter. And she was proud to speak about her reciprocal tribute to astronaut Marsha Ivans entitled My Favorite Marsha. (It was Ivans who carried a tune of Alison’s into space on the shuttle and later wrote to tell her of it.)

Brown visited her own upper atmospheres in an oh-so-jazzy version of The Spiderman Theme along with a sprightly and energetic Leaving Cottondale. And the rest of the band joined her way up there in tune after glorious tune. This modest but powerful ensemble does indeed seem to hail from “out of the blue.”

Midway in the set, Alison graciously allowed pianist John R. Burr to showcase a little something from his own recent solo effort Piedmont Avenue with a lovely introspective piece entitled A Christmas Lullaby which he played on a baby grand piano without a spotlight. The mood was delicious and Burr emerged quietly from the shadows to beckon his band-mates to return and finish out the set.

The mood quickly returned to excitement as the Quartet rounded out the evening with several showstoppers that highlighted their soaring talents individually and as a tight, well-suited unit. Particularly impressive was the subtle, appropriate and sparkling percussion provided by newest band member Kendrick Freeman whom Brown described as probably the best bluegrass drummer around. Agreed.

The evening was an unquestionable success despite the poor turn out. CD’s and T-shirts were available out front to help make up the deficit and I can happily report that Burr’s Piedmont Avenue, featuring Paul McCandless, is brilliant. (Note: Burr and McCandless make for a perfect marriage of musical sensibilities.)

Leaving the music hall at the close of the show was easy. Everything had been done. And there was no bottleneck at the exit. The evening was pleasant, musical and fulfilling.

Sitting in my car ready to pull away I glanced into the lobby and noted that husband, father, bassman, producer and business partner Garry West had taken over the till. I slipped Piedmont Avenue into the CD player and drove off with Burr’s masterful eloquence finishing the night like a smooth glass of port. I remember thinking, “I am happy.”

For the several scores of others who obviously could not make it to last night’s performance, I truly hope you can overcome future obstacles and make an evening with the Alison Brown Quartet a priority.