Folk fans organize series of live music Folkal Point plays in 'listening rooms'


It was at just about the time when the brash, hyper-sexual music of Madonna and Prince dominated the airwaves that Sue Trainor and friends bet what a lot of people in the Baltimore-Washington area really wanted to hear was something decidedly simpler.

What they had in mind was, well, folk music.

Specifically, they wanted a venue where area folk artists could perform and not have to croon above the din of a noisy coffeehouse crowd.

In musician parlance, such venues are called "listening rooms."

Next week, the listening room folk music series that Ms. Trainor and her friends pulled together opens for its fourth year. And that milestone for the series, called The Folkal Point, is a testimonial that the market for live folk music performances in the Baltimore-Washington area is strong, said Ms. Trainor.

"We tried a folk music series in Annapolis and it was a bomb.

"What that told us was that the draw for folk music is really limited to a narrowly defined area between Baltimore and Washington," said Ms. Trainor. "You can pretty much define it as running down the [Interstate] 95 corridor. What's interesting is how supportive those listeners are of live folk music."

Columbia resident and musician/songwriter Ms. Trainor and several friends organized the concert series by contacting area folk artists, asking if they would agree to play to a quiet audience for a percentage of a nominal cover charge.

They found artists eager for a receptive audience.

Ms. Trainor and friends then found an Ellicott City restaurant, Cacao Lane, willing to showcase the talent one night a week. The restaurant would keep all profits from food and beverage sales during the performances.

The Folkal Point series offered these caveats for the audience: pay a nominal cover charge then averaging about $6 and -- most importantly -- stay quiet during performances.

"We knew that among other folk musicians and friends we had a lot of company in wanting this kind of music in a quiet setting where people could really listen and enjoy," recalled Mrs. Trainor, whose own songs focus on lampooning male-female relationships.

While Ms. Trainor and the other founders, Chris Fox of Ellicott City and Joyce Sica of Randallstown, sensed that there was an audience for the music, they weren't prepared for the response.

By its second year, the series had become so popular that some shows sold out all 85 seats well in advance, as well as about 20 standing room only tickets allowed each night.

Next week, the Thursday night series opens in a new location and with a new caveat for its audiences -- no smoking.

The series will be showcased at the Coho Grill, on the second floor of the clubhouse at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Course in Columbia. The grill can accommodate about 60 patrons.

Ms. Trainor went shopping for a new home for the series this season after management at Cacao Lane wanted The Folkal Point to shift out of its traditional Thursday night slot to a different night.

"We really didn't want to change the night of the series. We just felt that a lot of the following the series has associate The Folkal Point with something to do on a Thursday night," said Ms. Trainor.

Folkal Point organizers and Cacao Lane management also couldn't come to an agreement on a no-smoking policy, she said.

Other than the venue and the no-smoking policy, patrons of the series, which runs until late spring, won't find much else changed.

"We are going to stick pretty faithfully to offering folk music artists. You'll see an Irish musician here and there, but we won't stray much more than that," said Mrs. Trainor. "Most of what people will see are singer-songwriters."

On occasion, organizers have experimented with offering other styles of music, such as bluegrass and rock roots. But the shows have been "flops," said Ms. Trainor.

"Our following wants us to stay focused on folk music. We've found a market whose tastes are relatively narrow."

The series this season will offer a generous mix of local artists whom organizers believe are talented enough to showcase, as well as regionally and nationally recognized musicians.

Regional and national artists enjoy playing The Folkal Point because it offers an intimate venue for musicians usually booked into larger clubs such as the 400-seat Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., which incidentally, was a model for The Folkal Point.

Meanwhile, The Folkal Point has earned such a strong following and reputation for helping to launch some folk music artists' careers -- such as John Gorka -- that there is no dearth of developing folk musicians clamoring for a gig in the series.

Also, The Folkal Point's draw for acts and audiences isn't hurt by the fact that music experts consider the Baltimore-Washington area one of the top markets nationwide for folk music.

Ms. Trainor estimates she receives in the mail 10 demonstration tapes weekly from folk artists seeking a booking.

"It's hard to listen to them all," admits Ms. Trainor. "What [getting] all these tapes shows me is that there are more people out there who want to play this music than there are places to play."

She also maintains a mailing list of about 500 people for notices about The Folkal Point series. The majority of the mailings are made up of Howard County and Baltimore residents.

Many who set aside folk music with their 1960s-vintage Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary albums probably aren't sure what defines "folk music" today, or what to expect at a Folkal Point performance.

"The folk music of the '60s was heavily political" in its message," said Ms. Trainor. "Or it was dominated by multiple harmonies.

"Now most of folk music is of a personal nature. People don't seem to want to hear political messages in the songs now. The introspective artists and the party, feel-good stuff does very well."



Oct. 8 -- Grace Griffith, Doris Justis, Andrew Lawrence & Dodie Macmillan

Oct. 15 -- Cathy Fink & Marcy Mixer

Oct. 22 -- Ironweed

Oct. 29 -- Steve Kay

All shows start at 8 p.m. Cover charge varies. Information: 381-2460.

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