Riffs from an electric guitar seemed to spill out from the dense stone and mortar of a 179-year-old stable-turned-church in Columbia last weekend, saturating the warm autumn night.
Smooth vocals and the rhythmic throbbing of a bass and drums were the only other outward signs that 2nd Saturday Cafe's new season was under way, marking the start of the venue's 10th year as a showcase for rock, jazz and blues artists.
Inside, an all-volunteer crew had transformed the sanctuary of Kittamaqundi Community Church into an intimate club for 140 guests, just as they have 50 other times over the past decade. But while the unusual setting and the caliber of the acts have cultivated unwavering devotion among loyal fans and musicians alike, 2nd Saturday Cafe remains one of Town Center's best-kept secrets, organizers say.
Even Alan Scott, a local singer-songwriter- guitarist who kicked off the current season Nov. 14, acknowledged he'd never heard of it, despite the many industry contacts he has developed in 20 years of performing throughout the metropolitan area and living nearby in North Laurel.
Not surprisingly, he didn't fully appreciate then what it could mean to play at 2nd Saturday Cafe.
After Dennis Ottey, a Frederick resident who works in executive marketing, and Paul Streb, a retired federal judge from Columbia (who both book for the club), went to hear Scott in Baltimore County last summer, they offered him and his band a slot on the cafe's schedule.
Ottey said he and Streb were "just blown away" by Scott, who composes all of his songs, as well as Paul Dudley on drums and Scott Ambush on bass. But he also said they're not easily impressed.
"The secret of our success is that we're really particular," said Ottey, who was a key player in the US Festivals that drew concertgoers to California in the 1980s. "There are lots of bands around who would like to have a shot here."
The acts booked at 2nd Saturday Cafe are "world-class," said Petra Compel, director of entertainment and decor at Feats Inc., a Baltimore-based marketing agency that manages live events.
"These musicians are taken for granted or overlooked because they come from our own backyard, but they are masters of their genres," said Compel, who went to the venue last year to hear Tom Principato, a cafe regular and well-known blues guitarist. He will perform at the cafe Dec. 12.
"And I was absolutely astounded at the uniqueness of the venue," Compel said. "The audience is so respectful to the artists that you can hear a pin drop. It's a musical experience for music lovers."
Calling the rock trio's sound " Lenny Kravitz meets Jimi Hendrix," Ottey introduced Scott, bassist Ambush and drummer Dudley last Saturday. The musicians launched into the first of three 45-minute sets and returned for an encore to a standing ovation.
If the Washington native was feeling the love that night, so was the audience. Streb said he's received numerous e-mail messages requesting that Scott be invited back. In the meantime, concerts are planned for the second Saturdays in December, January and March.
As if talent and a perfect setting weren't enough to make attendance worthwhile, all concert proceeds after expenses are donated to Agape House, an organization run by the Rev. Edward Robinson to help city children abandoned by parents who were or are drug addicts and prisoners.
Judy Colligan, a member of Kittamaqundi Community Church, said the funds raised by 2nd Saturday Cafe are earmarked for a number of Agape projects, including a monthly Saturday School, a boys camp and a store that sells discounted school supplies. "We've been able to develop great relationships with these kids and to nurture them" thanks to the funds that have been raised, she said.
Agape House was the reason 2nd Saturday Cafe was started by Guy Clatterbaugh, who also belongs to the church, said Streb. (Neither he nor Ottey is a member). Not only did the founder book the acts, he cooked meals, set up tables and distributed fliers. Clatterbaugh, who couldn't be reached for comment, is still involved, Streb said.
But setting up 20 tables and 140 chairs, preparing food, stocking wine and beer, checking the sound and lighting - and then erasing all traces of the concert for Sunday services the next morning - takes a lot of work, Ottey said, and that's one reason the cafe's schedule hasn't been expanded beyond six concerts a season.
"We've raised about $65,000 in 10 years for Agape House," said the producer. Thales Communications of Frederick has been a generous sponsor, as have Columbia merchants Mad City Coffee and Bagel Bin, he said. "My feeling is we're raising what we need."
And yet Ottey said he would love to book Nils Lofgren, a rock guitar virtuoso who grew up in the Washington area, and charge $50, or even host James Taylor at $100 a pop, ideas that remain on the back burner for now.
And it seems as if there's a budding relationship that deserves attention anyway. "It was the best gig I've ever done," said Scott, who recorded a live CD during his performance.
"I've been telling everyone that I had the best show of my life there," the musician said. "And to do that with original songs -- that was a great affirmation for me."