Our town hosts a variety of scenes — the successful DJ scene, the agriculture scene, the “hipster scene” — yet the free music scene is one that is slowly gaining attention. However small, it exists, and it’s becoming more of an official scene every day.
As Concerts in the Plaza is only a summer-time gig and Concerts in the University Union may conflict with students’ Thursday afternoon club meetings, a few small cafés and restaurants in the area offer a variety of performances — free of charge.
One such venue is The Clubhouse at This Old House. Located a short distance past Bishop Peak on Foothill Boulevard, this small restaurant and bar features “Central Coast Songwriters” every Tuesday night. The showcase features four to five pre-booked singer-songwriters. Host Casey McDonald, who has been doing the showcase for six months, said that he wants to showcase both local and out-of-town artists.
“There’s a lot of music that goes on in San Luis, and there’s a lot of talent that people don’t necessarily realize,” McDonald said.
Although the showcase doesn’t get as many Cal Poly students as McDonald would like, he finds that it’s always a good atmosphere when students come out to support their friends. McDonald said that live music can be fleeting if the support is missing.
“Frankly if you don’t support live music in town, live music goes away,” McDonald said.
Although the showcase is free, the Clubhouse does charge a cover for weekend slots. Having a cover charge for the small showcase may take the light off the performer, said owner Andrew Adams.
“I feel like it takes away from the performer because he gets paid from pass the hat. So if you’ve got to pay a cover charge and then you’re going to pass the hat, are you going to put very much in that hat? I don’t think so. So I think it’s doing a disservice to the performers,” Adams said.
Also in the singer-songwriter showcase business is Steve Key, who hosts “Songwriters at Play.” The showcase, which jumps around from venues in the county, is also free of charge aside from the Tuesday night shows at the Steynberg Gallery on Monterey Street. Key said that charging a cover is a way of supporting the artist, both financially and physically.
“If you paid something, you’re investing in being there,” Key said. “You’re not going to turn your back on the performer. You’re going to show some respect.”
However, Key said he likes the idea of finding new and original music — which can sometimes be tied to the small free concerts.
“One thing I like about the free shows is that people might discover somebody,” Key said. “They might just show up and give it a chance.”
Down the road from the Steynberg Gallery in the more central downtown area is Linnaea’s Café, located on Garden Street across from Downtown Brewing Co. Linnaea’s, which has been hosting free music for a number of years, is a favorite among Cal Poly students and performers.
Linnaea’s hosts a variety of shows, from acoustic to bluegrass. Employee and Cal Poly graduate Julia Reid said she enjoys the weekly folk-jam nights where people come in, sit in a circle and rock out.
“It’s really fun because it fills the space with energy,” Reid said. “It’s kind of cool because the music is in the audience.”
Like the Clubhouse, Linnaea’s is also ideal for intimate songwriter performances. Reid said that the café is a nice place for budding musicians as well as students who just want to hang out.
“I like that a lot of musicians have an opportunity to perform somewhere even if they’re not well-known, so I think that’s a good opportunity for them,” Reid said. “It’s just a nice thing to do at night — go listen to some music and maybe study.”
Cal Poly graduate and singer-songwriter Vince Cimo, whose alternative blues-rock band The Willows plays at Linnaea’s, said the relaxed environment of a small venue allows the artist to become more comfortable with performing.
“It provides a low-stress environment for musicians to express themselves — they’re not pressured to perform in any way other than the way they desire,” Cimo said.
The Willows have also performed at Vraja’s Kitchen, which also hosts free music on Friday nights. The small almost-miss-it vegan restaurant is located on Chorro Street, across the street from Bull’s Tavern. Owner Vraja Sauer said that her restaurant is more of a home than a venue.
“I don’t even think about free or pay or nothing. I just want everyone to have fun. I just want my friends to have a place to play,” Sauer said.
Usually taking the Friday night slot is reggae band The Gravy Pups, who were all friends prior to starting the band. The band plays to have fun, not necessarily to make money, said environmental management and protection senior and drummer Alex Wright.
“We just love playing music with each other, and that’s how it started up. We just love playing music for people,” Wright said. “And you know I’m not really stressing about money right now. It’s just fun — it doesn’t matter if someone pays me or not.”
Environmental engineer senior and bassist Derek Manheim said music is a form of communication, and the band doesn’t need payment for sharing with others.
“Any opportunity, you should take it — it doesn’t matter if you get paid,” Manheim said. “You make friendships, you make connections; you open everyone else’s mind when you meet other people. It’s a good experience for everyone to share.”