Musicians hone skills, grow audience at coffeehouse

May 15, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

Cary Smith, 15, has gone from stepping up to the mic with others in 2006 to performing solo sets, singing and playing guitar.

Guitarist Brooks Binau, 19, and drummer Doug Grove, 23, released their first independent album, The Latte Roasted EP, last November and are playing a New York City bar this month.

Cary and Binau have both gotten experience performing regularly in front of a crowd at Port City Java in Long Meadow Shopping Center, in Hagerstown's North End.

Ever since the coffeehouse opened in October 2004, it has helped local amateur musicians get some experience in front of a mic and a crowd, says owner Vivienne Smith, who is not related to Cary Smith.


Port City Java has an open invitation for musicians and poets on Tuesday nights and jam sessions with local musician Tommy Lancaster on Thursday nights and alternate Friday nights.

The latest addition has been a New Artist Music Showcase every other Friday night. Musicians and singers who have settled their nerves and honed their skills on jam session nights get a 45-minute set to perform original material or covers in front of an audience of 25 to 30.

"I think that's a great opportunity. Something that's been needed in Hagerstown for younger musicians to get in front of an audience," says Binau, who's returned home to Hagerstown from Ithaca College to perform at this Friday night's showcase with Grove. They play acoustic blues and soul music.

Binau says he and Grove typically have had to travel to Frederick, Md., Chambersburg, Pa., or Virginia to perform in front of bigger audiences, but Port City Java's showcase gives them the chance to do that at home.

The jam sessions and showcase "give local musicians an opportunity to perform in a nonsmoking, nonalcohol environment with a nice audience," Vivienne Smith says. "The people who come to listen to the music in our coffeehouse are really a wonderful bunch of people and really encouraging."

Port City Java also has Lancaster, who plays guitar, piano and harmonica. He runs the jam sessions and provides encouragement.

Lancaster says he can usually spot the people in the audience who are or have been a musician.

"I ask them if they want to get up there. It's always 'no' the first couple times," Lancaster says. Then he might get them to play a song with him and eventually step up to the mic alone at a jam session and finally do a set at the showcase.

"It's a progression," Lancaster says. Often someone at the mic will call upon others in the audience to step up and assist with a harmonica, fiddle or guitar. "It's a lot different than your average open mic."

Cary Smith, who is performing Friday, performed in front of others for the first time at an open mic at Port City Java 2 1/2 years ago.

"It was a great experience," says Cary, who did a showcase set two months ago. Cary sings and plays electric guitar and a little banjo to perform blues, rock and reggae. He plays original music and covers artists such as Ben Harper and John Frusciante.

Cary says Lancaster gave him some tips about tuning and breathing to help project his voice.

"It's nice to have someone be that nice to you when you're just starting," he says.

Cary, a Smithsburg High School sophomore, says Port City is "pretty much the only place" around here for him to perform as an amateur, because he's not old enough to play in bars.

Vivienne Smith says Port City was hiring Tri-State-area musicians to perform Fridays and Saturdays, but with more places offering live music Port City didn't always get enough of a crowd to make the venture profitable.

The showcase, like the jam sessions, is free for the artists, the audience and the coffeehouse.

Lancaster says he's enjoyed watching the musicians, some as young as 8 and 12 years old, progress in their skills and confidence.

"I think it's great," Lancaster says. "I think the whole music scene down there from the beginning has really helped a lot of kids come along, pushed a lot of kids and adults out of their shell."

If you go ...

WHAT: New Artist Music Showcase

WHEN: 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, May 16, and every other Friday night. This Friday features Cary Smith, who performs blues, rock and a little reggae, at 7 p.m., followed by Brooks Binau and Doug Grove, who perform acoustic blues and soul.

WHERE: Port City Java, Long Meadow Shopping Center, corner of Northern and Potomac avenues, Hagerstown

COST: Free

MORE: Artists interested in performing during Port City Java's New Artist Music Showcase should go the coffeehouse on Tuesday or Thursday nights and ask for Tommy, Vivienne or A.J., or call 301-790-5040.

To learn more about Brooks & Doug, go to To learn more about Cary Smith, go to Brooks and the Side Salad of Soul with guest artist Doug Grove will perform their first New York City show at 10 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at 169 Bar, 169 E. Broadway in Chinatown.

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