Betsy’s Back Porch, not just the coffee is hot

Windom hangout hosts concerts and afternoon milongas

Betsy Killion opened up Betsy's Back Porch Coffee, 5447 Nicollet Ave., with the idea of selling more than just hot black liquid. She's turned the former storage room adjacent to her coffee shop into a small arts, dancing and music venue.

Since she began hosting music on Friday and Saturday nights two years ago, groups from around the Metro-area have been dropping off their CDs and vying for a spot on Betsy's roster. Typically, Killion shies away from the solo acoustic folk standard to many local coffe shops. Bluegrass group Myrtle Jean and the Bubs, rockabilly band 52 Pick-Up, and urban folkies Spruce Top Review have all played Betsy's, as well as younger up-and-coming rock bands like Southwest's Abdomen.

Killion's intimate space holds up to 50 people. Local artwork on the walls changes every six weeks (and is booked through April 2006). A fireplace adds to the room's coziness in winter.

While downtown has the likes of The Fine Line Music Caf/, Betsy's is Windom's hotspot. Killion said her trouble-free space has steadily grown in popularity. Groups of 20 usually show up to hear performers, and bands with a following, like Abdomen, pack the place.

Killion said that while she can't pay the performers, they do enjoy free coffee and are allowed to charge a cover or pass a tip jar. "All I ask of them is that they keep their amplifiers low enough so they don't blow out my windows," Killion said.

Coffee shops have sprung up throughout Southwest to fill the social niche occupied in decades past by neighborhood bars. Killion said even her modest cultural offerings give her an edge when competing with the Starbucks and two Caribou Coffees nearby. Other independents like Kingfield's Caffe Tempo, 4161 Grand Ave. S., and Anodyne, 4301 Nicollet Ave. S. also offer live music.

Although Killion noted that "people feel really safe in those corporate coffee environments," she said being noncorporate is a real virtue, "you can do what you want to do, be more responsive to the neighborhood and try new things."

Southwest's Abdomen

Abdomen, which consists of five Southwest teens -- siblings Jake, Matt and Mari Abdo along with violinists Shira Burton and Natalie Murphy -- are playing at Betsy's the last Friday of every month through July at 8 p.m. Though the band has made the rounds at such bars as Bunkers in downtown and O'Gara's and Taste of Minnesota in St. Paul, they look forward to their community gigs.

"A regular gig like this is important, it gives people a chance to see us," said Jake Abdo. "It's fun for us to have a headquarters of sorts."

The Betsy's run allows the Abdomen to cultivate a broader fan base. Their following normally consists of parents and their kids as well as their fellow Southwest High students.

Abdomen charges a $3 cover and plays selections from their own work (they recently released a CD, "Betwixt") and classic and modern rock covers including U2's "In a Little While." Guest performers who will accompany the young rockers at their Betsy's gig include Billy McLaughlin and Dan Israel.

The band tries to keep their shows to 75 minutes. "It's fun to play in a coffeehouse setting, but it's not always that comfortable to sit there for too long," said Mari Abdo.

Tango time

Killion's success has led her to reach in new directions. Every Friday from noon to 3 p.m. she hosts Friday Fun Tango, an Argentine Tango dance party or milongas. She pushes tables and chairs against the walls and turns up Latin dance music on the stereo.

"Since I got into Tango dancing myself, I realized that there are dance communities in the Twin Cities and they go where the music is," Killion said.

Lyndale resident Lois Donnay has been bringing her tango shoes to Betsy's for her milongas. Her black high heels have suede soles instead of the usual hard leather to pivot with her partner on Betsy's linoleum floor. Donnay is the former president of the Tango Society of Minnesota. She calls Tango "the dance of one heart and four legs."

"Those of us who have fallen in love with Argentine Tango dance need places to go and dance," Donnay said. "To have a place to go like this is really great. Having a milonga in the afternoon is a very traditional thing in Argentina. People with flexible schedules come from all over the city to dance Tango at Betsy's."

Dan Larson, a dance instructor at Social Dance Studio at 6015 Lyndale Ave. S., teaches novices the steps and plays D.J. at the gatherings. "The music has a very distinctive syncopation, it mirrors the human condition -- it's sad, it's bittersweet, it's happy and it's sensual . . . It's not a one note dance," Larson said.

He sends many rookie students to Betsy's afternoon soirees to practice. He said it's a great place for a fledgling dancer to build confidence. "It's a small place where everybody talks to one another. Sometimes, if you go to one of the larger dances and you don't know anyone, it's difficult," Larson said.

Killion said she is looking for more Latino, Hmong and Somali musicians to perform, and believes such cultural activities can have a community-wide impact. "We often do not understand other cultures," Killion said. "It would be good to learn about them through their music."

For upcoming events and concerts, check BetsysBackPorchCoffee.com or call 827-8283.