The musicians in Brother Sun were just awakening when Louise Baker answered Xpress‘ phone call about the transformation of her Mountain Spirit Coffeehouse concert series. “Many [artists] stay in our house when they do these shows,” she says. “It’s fun. I love it.”
The previous night, the band had taken on the weighty task of closing Baker’s decade-old coffeehouse tradition. It involved monthly volunteer-powered benefit concerts for host venue the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, where Baker is a member. With shows discontinued at the church as of December, the event is being reincarnated as the Mountain Spirit Acoustic Series at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. Baker partnered with the West Asheville venue in early 2015. The series’ first Isis-only season launches with Todd Hoke and King Possum Wednesday, Jan. 13.
“Unitarian Universalist churches around the United States have been doing these concert series for many, many years,” Baker says, noting that she shared the dream with her husband, Don (who is not involved with the Isis shows), to re-create the event in Asheville. While the transition out of the congregation has invoked “a little bit of an emotional sadness,” the Boston-raised music lover — a perpetual attendee at conferences and concerts, a guitar player (at home) and artist manager — ultimately saw greater potential at Isis.
“I think it’s 99 percent positive,” she says, adding that the new space provides “more opportunity for this type of music in town.” While the UUCA was limited to about 10 coffeehouse performances per year, Baker’s goal at Isis is three to seven shows per month. Since beginning the transition last April, she’s booked 20 dates.
“We’ve had some small crowds, and we’ve had some sold-out crowds,” she says. Fortunately, Isis’ upstairs lounge seats just 50 people, providing a home for intimate shows — one that doesn’t look sparse with just a few dozen listeners, as the UUCA’s space sometimes did. Larger shows are held downstairs on the Isis main stage, where 150 people fit comfortably within the seated arrangement.
Isis is also equipped with much-needed infrastructure — “a sound system, stage lighting, great food,” Baker says, rattling off a list of amenities she believes adds up to a great evening. “At the church we did that, but we had to bring everything.”
Baker does feel a sense of loss as her series moves away from the tradition of folk music being presented at UU congregations. “There will be a few people in our audience who say, ‘I just really liked it in [the church], because it was quiet, and I didn’t care about food or drinks,'” she says. Surprisingly, the typical audience at the UUCA concerts included very few of the church’s constituents. Out of hundreds of members, around a dozen attended per show, Louise reports.
Musical content at the coffeehouse performances was secular, and religious outreach was subtle at most, with no invitations to return for services (although Louise suspects a few individuals attended additional church-related functions after perusing bulletin boards between sets). The overarching mission was to support and celebrate arts as a community.
So, while the coffeehouse’s migration won’t detract significantly from the church’s offerings, it does represent a cultural departure and, perhaps more pressingly, a loss of funds. The Bakers previously provided their services free of charge so that proceeds after artist fees could support the church. However, the UUCA won’t benefit financially from the series at Isis, a for-profit venture with its own books to balance. “I’m sure that they will find a way to adapt,” Baker says, calling the congregation a growing pool of smart individuals.
According to lead minister Mark Ward, the UUCA’s music program is currently in transition. “Louise sought volunteers to continue the church coffeehouse, but so far we haven’t found anyone,” he says. Baker has, however, offered to arrange one-off performances at the UUCA when possible.
At Isis, Baker says she’s already observed a broadening audience in terms of age and ethnicity. And about a quarter of attendees mention they’re visiting from out of town. Still others have made the move from the UUCA. “I think they’re excited that they can hear the same kind of music more often in this new place,” she says, though some church elders won’t venture into what they view as a nightclub.
For marketing purposes, the Mountain Spirit brand has come to indicate acts that appeal to an acoustic-oriented audience rather than meaning that Baker booked the talent. Conversely, some of the acts she attracts will not be listed as part of the series. Ticket prices for Mountain Spirit Acoustic concerts are determined by expected turnout, with an average price of about $15. Bigger names will venture into the $30 range.
“Isis has the bluegrass thing down,” Baker says, “so that won’t be my doing.” Instead, she’ll focus on bringing well-known names in folk, Americana, blues, Celtic and world music: “We’re going to try to spice it up with a little variety.”