What a hoot

Jim Walsh brings music lovers together for weekly ‘Mad Ripple Hootenanny' at Java Jack's

EAST HARRIET - Most Friday evenings, Pete Christensen walks out his front door, heads just down the block to Java Jack's and descends into the neighborhood caf's basement - the unlikely location of one of the best regular music happenings in town.

The 41-year-old father of three said it's become something of a weekly devotional.

&#8220For me, this is like going to church,” Christensen said. &#8220I love the music. I love the community. I love the people.”

If what happens in the basement of Java Jack's Coffee Caf is like church, then its high priest is The Mad Ripple, aka local writer and songwriter Jim Walsh. Since November, Walsh has played host to a different lineup of mostly local musicians every Friday evening.

It's known as &#8220The Mad Ripple Hootenanny,” a family friendly gathering named for both the folk music jam sessions of decades past and the 1983 Replacements album.

&#8220The Hootenanny is a lot of things,” Christensen said. &#8220It's underground. It's hip. It's community. It's people coming together unsanctioned.”

Many of those people are neighborhood folks; people who, like Christensen, bring the wife, the kids and, often, a bottle of wine to sip during the two- or three-hour shows. For a younger Uptown set, the Hootenanny is a relaxing pit stop on the way from work to the clubs.

Over the past five months, regulars were treated to up-and-coming local acts - many spotted by Walsh while trawling Myspace.com - as well as established performers like Chicago rocker Ike Reilly.

&#8220Dan Wilson played the week before he won the Grammy,” Walsh noted, referring to the Semisonic front man who co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks &#8220Not Ready to Make Nice,” the song of the year.

But it's not the chance to rub elbows with a Grammy winner that keeps the Hootenanny faithful coming back. Most weeks, Walsh and his guests said, something truly special happens in the basement of Java Jack's.

&#8220I feel uplifted; I feel inspired,” Christensen said. &#8220I go home and write songs after these things because it's that kind of creative energy going on.”

A quiet place to play

On the last Friday in March, His Madness sat in the dark basement on a ramshackle stage. He plucked his guitar while he waiting for someone to find the light switch.

As guests started filling choice seats on the old couches and small, round tables near the stage, Walsh explained the humble origins of his weekly gathering.

&#8220I had just seen (local songwriter) David Brusie at the Wilde Roast [Caf], and he was tremendous,” Walsh said. But as he remembered it, few other people in the Northeast restaurant paid much attention that night.

&#8220No one was listening to him,” he said. &#8220I mean, literally, I was the only one.”

Walsh had recently returned to songwriting, releasing &#8220Sink and/or Swim,” his first album in about 20 years. Around the same time, he was discovering tons of talented local songwriters through Myspace, he said.

So he went looking for a place they could all find a quiet, appreciative audience. That search took him to Java Jack's, 818 W. 46th St., conveniently located two blocks from his house.

Owner Jerry Nelson first offered Walsh a spot in the corner of the caf. But then he invited Walsh to check out the basement and Walsh, skeptical, followed him downstairs.

As soon as he set foot on the concrete floor, Walsh flashed back to high school.

&#8220It totally had that vibe of, like, Richfield 1977,” he said. &#8220Parents away, you know, kegger.”

&#8220I think people have great sentimental attachment to stuff like that,” he said. &#8220You know, make-out parties, beer parties.”

The Hoot was born.

A unique experience

By the time Walsh finished his story, someone had found the light switch. Christmas lights strung in the plumbing above the stage flickered on, illuminating the increasingly crowded basement.

The night's lineup featured two young local acts - Accelerated Love Affair and Mighty Fairly - as well as Walsh's friend Jeaneen Gauthier. Brooklyn, N.Y., duo KaiserCartel joined the crowded stage after playing an early show at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown.

Sunk into the corner of a white sofa, Andrea Myers, Jen Paulson and Pat O'Brien - three friends in their 20s - discussed just what makes a Hootenanny different from almost any other show in town.

&#8220I think the musicians are kind of hand-picked by Jim,” Myers said. &#8220He has kind of a good ear for the up-and-coming, really, really good, talented people that deserve to be showcased.”

&#8220It is a family friendly atmosphere, too,” O'Brien added. &#8220You can't really bring your 4-year old to the Turf Club.”

Most important, they agreed, is the atmosphere.

The shows are loose and unscripted. Musicians perform without amplification. And the audience really listens in a way that creates an intimacy with the performers.

&#8220It's just kind of an experience everyone should have,” Paulson said.

The experience began that night around 6:30 p.m., when Walsh, at center stage, quieted everyone down. He was both performer and master of ceremonies, introducing each act and conducting interviews between songs.

As they took turns playing round-robin style, the basement continued to fill with people. More than a few in the audience were past performers since the Hoot, by its nature, seems to attract musicians.

One was 11-year-old Graham Earley, who Walsh called onstage near the end of the show. The precocious performer played a couple of Cake covers, then earned the distinction of being the first ever to break a guitar string on the Hootenanny stage.

Afterward, Mischa Suemnig of Mighty Fairly said the unique environment beneath Java Jack's can leave a musician feeling exposed - in a good way.

&#8220Everybody's really attentive and really watching what you're doing,” he said. &#8220It's a really powerful experience as opposed to playing in a bar.”

&#8220I'm sharing this with you, and you're sharing something back,” Suemnig said. &#8220And you're actually listening as opposed to just drinking.”

For a few hours every Friday night, that connection between audience and performer is made at the Hootenanny. But it can only last so long, Walsh said.

&#8220I think there's a sadness at the end of each Hoot, too, because everyone kind of knows that that's never going to happen again,” he said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at 436-4391 or dthomas@mnpubs.com.