Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the September 24,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mine Street Coffeehouse: Folk Survivor

by Richard Skelly

When you’re in New Brunswick looking for a night out

on the town, it’s easy to overlook the Mine Street Coffeehouse. While

the city’s nightlife scene has come back to life in a big way, the

Mine Street Coffeehouse is open only on Saturday evenings. And what’s

more, it’s tucked away in the basement of the First Reformed Church.

Yet Mine Street is New Jersey’s oldest continuously running

coffeehouse,

and in 1995, Robert Yahn, a New Brunswick native, took over the job

of booking its musicians.

Yahn, 54, says his first visit to the Mine Street was in 1967 when

it was still located on Mine Street, just off the Rutgers University

College Avenue campus. The coffeehouse moved to its current location

on Nielsen and Bayard streets in 1985. Yahn is a noted music

photographer

whose work has been exhibited at the New Jersey Folk Festival and

is often published in Sing Out! magazine, the eminent folk song

journal

based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Despite the relatively low pay compared to other area coffee houses

held in schools or churches, many nationally-famous folk and blues

performers have graced the Mine Street stage in its nearly 40-year

history. They include Les Sampou, Barry Mitterhoff, Ralph Rush, Sparky

and Rhonda Rucker, Walt Michael, and modern day bluegrass specialist

Tony Trischka.

"The average performer take-home pay at Mine Street is often as

little as $100," Yahn says. The group’s formula is to give

performers

80 percent of the door receipts, plus the tip jar, and their CD sales.

The 2003 Mine Street Coffeehouse season opened September 20 with Jaia

Suri. On Saturday, September 27, the featured act is the aptly named

Basement Musicians’ Guild, a folk group comprised of friends since

childhood, who play folk covers and originals.

"Other coffee houses in the area have larger rooms, a higher door

admission price and can offer performers guarantees," Yahn points

out, "but we are the lowest admission price coffee house in the

state, the oldest acoustic room in the state, and the oldest

continuously

operating coffee house in New Jersey."

"Initially, Mine Street was a campus alternative to the fraternity

parties," Yahn explains, noting the original location was a much

smaller room in the basement of the Second Reformed Church on Mine

Street.

"The first acts I saw at the old Mine Street were probably

storyteller

and folksinger Jim Albertson and blues performer Sparky Rucker,"

Yahn says, "and Ralph Rush was one of the people I saw early on

there, when Rush and Rucker were part of Victoria Spivey’s touring

band."

Previous to 1973, he says, there was no organized booking schedule.

Mine Street was a meeting place for like-minded college students from

Rutgers and other nearby colleges who would often bring acoustic

instruments

to school with them. Yahn would also frequent the old Englishtown

Music Hall in the 1970s, where nationally known folk and bluegrass

musicians would perform.

"It was a local hangout, a non-alcoholic local hangout, and I

was developing an interest in folk music," Yahn recalls of his

years at Middlesex County College in the late 1960s. He graduated

in 1970 and promptly went to work for the post office at the Kilmer

Bulk Mail Facility in Edison, a job he holds to this day. Yahn

developed

an interest in music photography several years later, when he began

photographing musicians at the New Jersey Folk Festival, and later,

the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

"In 1973, Kathy DeAngelo was looking for a venue for Ed McDermott,

the fiddle player, whom she was accompanying on guitar," Yahn

explains, "she invited other musicians from the area and had a

semi-formal concert." That was the beginning of weekly Saturday

evening bookings at the Mine Street Coffeehouse.

After the coffeehouse moved to Neilson and Bayard

Streets,

in an expanded room in the basement of the First Reformed Church in

1985, organizers decided a formal admission price of $3 was not too

much to ask. DeAngelo handled bookings until about 1980, Yahn

estimates,

and then Deena Amont, Jim Van Fleet and others took over bookings.

Ted Toskos took over booking the Mine Street Coffeehouse until 1995,

when Yahn took over the job, no easy task, when one considers Yahn

wants to book nationally and regionally famous performers for a

fraction

of their normal asking price.

"When I took over the bookings in 1995, I tried to get some more

`name’ performers into the coffeehouse and bring more of a diversity

of acts into the room," says Yahn, who also coordinated talent

for the now-defunct Raritan River Clearwater Festivals in Boyd Park

in New Brunswick in the early 1980s. Those environmental festivals

regularly drew thousands because Pete Seeger, Tom Chapin, Bob Killian,

Rik Palieri, and other nationally and regionally famous performers

were on the bill.

For the last eight years, admission to Mine Street has been a

relatively

paltry $5. A plastic pumpkin is passed around the room for additional

tips. There’s not a bad seat in "the new" Mine Street

Coffeehouse,

good coffee and snacks are always available, and the room has adequate

heat for the winter months. Audience members get the same kind of

intimate experience they may find at the increasingly trendy

"house

concerts." Mine Street performers often take requests from

audience

members.

In recent years, Mine Street Coffeehouse has been a place that puts

structure into Yahn’s workweek, and that’s been helpful.

"Mine Street has been my Saturday night date during what would

be the normal school year. For a time I did everything from opening

the door to setting up the coffee to miking," he says. Yahn is

now assisted by Joan Fekete of South River and other volunteers.

Yahn regularly attends important folk music festivals and conferences,

like the Folk Alliance and the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance

Conference

— the latter held every November in the Poconos.

"I get the satisfaction of introducing up-and-coming artists in

the folk music world to a new audience in New Jersey. Often times,

for the performers who play Mine Street, it’s their first exposure

to a New Jersey audience," he says. In the last year, Emily Slade,

an emerging British singer-songwriter played Mine Street to a packed

house, and labor singer-songwriter Joe Stead, also from England, will

be returning to the venue this November.

Performers who have been at Mine Street Coffeehouse through the years

include Elaine Silver, Rik Palieri, Gregg Cagno, and Roger Dietz,

John Pearse and Mary Faith Rhodes. Some of the touring acts from other

parts of the country include Priscilla Herdman, Bonnie Phipps, Greg

Greenway, Amy Fradon, Saul Broudy, Beppe Gambetta from Italy, and

Walt Michael and Company.

"I like being on the cutting edge of things," Yahn says.

"I’m

in tune with up-and-coming artists and with trying to help them get

a foothold and an audience base on the East Coast."

— Richard J. Skelly

Mine Street Coffee House, Basement of the First Reformed

Church, Neilson and Bayard streets, New Brunswick, 732-545-1005.

Www.firstreformedchurch.net.

Concerts are Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. (Doors open at 7:30 p.m.)

Admission

$5.

Upcoming Shows:

September 27: Basement Musicians’ Guild plays folk covers

and originals.

October 4: Fil Campbell & Tom McFarland from Northern

Ireland; traditional Irish folk music.

October 11: Deirdre Flint: Comedic singer-songwriter.

October 18: Vickie Russell: Singer-songwriter and keyboard

player.

October 25: Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, from

Vermont,

traditional and contemporary singer-songwriters.

November 1: Spirit Wing: Native American Trio from

Philadelphia

November 8: Joe Stead: British singer-songwriter,

considered

the Pete Seeger of the U.K.

November 22: Mike Agranoff: Humorous singer-songwriter

from New Jersey active in the New Jersey Folk Alliance.

November 29: Mine Street’s Annual Open Stage, sign-up

early.

December 6: Special concert: Dirdy Birdies Jug Band,

upstairs

in the church sanctuary.

December 13: Collins Brothers: duo from Northern New

Jersey,

pop-folk singer-songwriters.

January 3: Saul Broudy from Philadelphia.

January 10: Clare Muldaur.

January 17: George Wurzbach and Modern Man Trio.

January 31: Saffron Summerfield, from England, contemporary and

traditional

British ballad singer.


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