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.