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The Coffee House Sticks with its Mission

Feb. 10, 2015
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Music venues aren’t usually given to upholding manifestos, but The Coffee House at 1905 W. Wisconsin Ave., one of Milwaukee’s oldest homes for acoustic stylings and spoken-word performance, still stands by one philosophical impetus both humble and challenging: “To serve the community by being a place where persons may meet in unhurried conversation and where the questions, the issues, the interests, the hopes that lie within and around us may unfold in an atmosphere of openness and candor.”

Even if the conversation now occurs mostly between sets by bands and soloists, and the questions, issues, interests and hopes are most often expressed in song, the space—don’t call it a club!—housed in the auditorium of Redeemer Lutheran Church near the Marquette University campus—continues to uphold its directive 48 years after opening in its current home.

Of the genre with which the space is most often associated, Mary Gaar, The Coffee House’s current volunteer coordinator, says, “Folk is often a narrow label. I consider folk to include Hank Williams and Ray Charles as well as Dylan and Baez. Blues, country, gospel, even rock ’n’ roll, are all folk musics as these resonate with the poor and middle class, as opposed to art musics, which are usually subsidized by the same poor and middle class, usually with tax breaks, etc., for the upper class.”

If Gaar speaks in terms of class consciousness, a correspondingly economical ethos extends to The Coffee House’s operation, down to how much acts playing its Labor Day-to-Memorial Day Saturdays and two-Sundays-monthly schedule are paid. Entertainment is as much a volunteer endeavor as staff.

That operational model keeps most of The Coffee House’s artistic offerings local in nature, but what’s absent in terms of financial reward is duly compensated by the warmth and sense of community nurtured there. Whereas its non-electrified aesthetic imperative might have made it in vogue with the time of its inception, the space might now rightfully be called amiably anti-hipster, but not in a knowing nor conscious way. Gaar elaborates as to the audience and atmosphere there. “We’re certainly not overdressed, but certainly open-minded and open to hearing new things,” she says. “The audience tracks a bit old, but we’ve been pulling in some younger folks as we’ve expanded our booking to include both the traditionalists and the young creatives, and sometimes the twain meet.”

And from Gaar’s perspective, there appears to be a groundswell in the youthful creativity The Coffee House has been seeking out to broaden its demographic reach. She enthuses, “There is an underground of folk music that is blossoming that we are trying to plug into. With the narrowing of conventional radio’s playlists, people are looking elsewhere for musical sustenance.” She cites WMSE’s "Fox and Branch” show and groups such as Mississippi Sawyer as examples of support for new directions in folk, adding, “The era of the songwriter has not ended. On the contrary, there are many young songwriters here, and the older ones remain fecund.”

The humility of The Coffee House’s foundational credo continues to inform its current direction. According to Gaar, “Artists won’t get rich, but audiences listen intently and appreciate the effort put forth. As creativity with one foot in tradition blossoms, we have had some greatness in the past and there is the possibility of much greatness in the future.”

For more information on The Coffee House and an entertainment lineup, visit the-coffee-house.com.

Correction: The Coffee House has been located in Redeemer Lutheran Church since opening in 1967.


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