Friday, January 9, 2004, “This Week” centerfold
Two nights on the town

by Deon Lackey, Chronicle Staff Writer

The smell of coffee isn’t strong in the Leaf and Bean. Couples, groups in threes and fours, and single people scattered on stools or curled into the overstuffed couch.

Toward the back is a small stage.

It’s one of the truly open “microphones” in Bozeman, the merger of beatnik performance and self-expression.

Monday Night

The literary “Open” Open Mic is the first and third Monday every month. Sam Louden, a gardener and “de facto” writer, has been reading at the Leaf and Bean for a while now, becoming one of the handful of regulars. “I’m not trying to live like a writer,” Louden mused between sips of a pulp-filled warm cider. “I’m trying to live like a gardener who dabbles. I’m a dilettante.”

By 8 p.m., none of the other regulars had showed up. Louden strolled to the slim microphone stand, prepared for a one man show. His voice became the background music, replacing the Spanish lyrics. He began reading a poem he’d written a few weeks before: “Bow down before my glory, slaves/...Country run by fat white men?/ None but myself/ controls them.”

The halting cadence of Louden’s speaking voice broke the normal beat of the poetry. A few people scattered throughout the Leaf and Bean continue reading, their gazes never leaving their books as Louden continues. “I am the new god,” he grinds out intently. “You mere humans are to be impressed.”

The poem ended, Louden staring intensely at the yellow legal pad in his hand before breaking character. A friend of his called from the audience, asking what the poem was about. Louden described a blonde-haired, buff goddess glaring out from a magazine cover he’d seen in the Yoga Motion window. He felt like she tore at his soul, “just because I was supposed to love her.”

Dave Sheeham, a twentyish man with shaggy hair and a white western shirt a la Bob Dylan, pushed out of the plush couch. Standing at the mike, he paused, head bowed as if in prayer as he tried to remember a poem he’d written, and began reciting quietly, with almost desperate intensity. “The well was quiet/ As any place is ... I remember the place well/ When you brought me there,/ The sky, the wind’s hand to hold back your hair/ ... When we were finished/ The spell was still there/ ...Was kissed onto a silent coin and tossed for the sake of tradition...”

Tuesday Night

Tuesday is the Bluegrass/Old-Time Jam, an informal gathering of local musicians. “You never know from one night to the next,” said Oshi Simsarian. She had arrived to find two bass-fiddles and no guitar. She held lightly onto her fiddle case as she waited and spoke easily about the weekly jam. “We’ve been doing it for three years,” she said. “Sometimes, it comes together and we’ll be jamming; sometimes, it’s like a train wreck. We come here to play with each other. We’re musicians; (the jam) is a way to meet each other.”

Simsarian is earnestly believes the old-time style is essential. “That’s what music is about,” she said. “Traditionally, it’s been a lot more integrated into people’s lives.”

Three years ago, Simsarian approached Sarah Young, the owner of the Leaf and Bean, and asked if they could begin playing old-time music, a sound reminiscent of Irish folk and English ballads. “She’s been wonderful, in terms of supporting music and playing whatever (comes).”

When the jams started, mandolin player-cum-anesthesiologist, Terry Mann, was still learning the mandolin. It only took a few weeks before he joined in. “I showed up and started singing, and it became bluegrass.”  >

Simsarian, Mann and guitar players Rich Stoltzfus and Jerry Dickson are the “regulars” at the jam. “We stretch the meaning of bluegrass,” Simsarian countered. “It’s ‘new grass.’”

“We do our thing up here, and they’re doing their thing out there,” Mann said, gesturing vaguely to the full house.

When the remaining musicians arrived, Ron Bigg and John Bennion on bass fiddle, David Kirchhof on banjo, and Karen Pogorzelski on fiddle, they tuned their instruments, gliding a song. There was a behind-the-scenes feel, like seeing a professional rehearsal.

The songs have names like “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The happy sound hides a haunting familiarity, of river baptisms, moonshine stills, and simple farm life. It tears your heart.

Kirchhof swept into “Wild Bill Jones,” a wry ballad of a man who killed his rival over a girl. “Well, let's pass the whiskey bottle ‘round/ And we'll all go on a spree,” Kirchhof sang over the uproarious beat. “For today saw the last of that Wild Bill Jones/ And tomorrow'll see the last of me.” It was one of the high points of a stellar evening, the constant refrain “pass the whiskey bottle ‘round” echoing playfully. “If it ain’t about jailhouses, trains, or whiskey,” Mann drawled, “we ain’t interested.”