by Max Bowen
Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, and Ellis Paul—names that are known by most music lovers. Now add all local greats such as Sarah Blacker, Jenee Halstead, and Girls, Guns and Glory. It’s this blend of newcomers and veterans, both local and regional, that has elevated me&thee to a must-visit destination for lovers of folk music since it was founded 43 years ago.
Located within the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, the coffeehouse boasts a small group of dedicated volunteers who work hard to bring some of the best artists to the public. Anthony Silva, a familiar face in the New England area as business editor for WBZ radio, founded the me&thee to provide a new venue for folk lovers to see some of their favorite acts and plenty of new ones as well. Fellow organizer Kathy Sands-Boehmer says people travel for miles to catch the weekly shows, and over the years, casual fans have become diehard supporters of me&thee. Kathy sat down with me to talk about what has made me&thee such a success.
Noise: I’ve read that me&thee is entirely volunteer-operated. What does that say about the dedication to the coffeehouse?
Kathy: I think it’s just the love of the community and the music. I think it’s a great opportunity to present music to those in the greater-North Shore area. I’ve just always been attracted to this kind of music. I’m actually attracted to all kinds of music; I’m eclectic. I feel passionate about helping singer-songwriters better attain their aspirations in life. At this grassroots level we’re giving an opportunity and we get to know them and to nurture their careers and to help them on their way to hopefully greater and bigger things.
It started up in this room [the lobby/ art gallery of the church], and they would have little tables and coffee and tea. They used to have a remote sound system. And in the late ’90s it just so happened that the minister who came to serve here had a very thin voice that was not strong enough, so we had to build a better sound system. We installed one in the back of the sanctuary. At the same time we decided to move the shows from the smaller place into the main church area.
Noise:How long have these volunteers been with me&thee?
Kathy: They come and go. There’s one woman, Joan McIntire, who has been here since 1970. She is in her eighties now. She is probably the oldest volunteer we have. Some people try it and it’s not their bag. It’s a long night and many people, young and old, don’t always want to commit to giving up that much of their time. But those who do—well, they just thrive on it!
Noise:You’re certainly doing a great job. How do you find the artists for the shows?
Kathy: I get asked that all the time. I’m on the board of the Boston Area Coffeehouse Association, I’m also on the larger board of Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, which goes from Canada down to Virginia. I’ve also been to the Folk Alliance, which is in Memphis. I blog. I am incessantly reading, keeping up on new music. It’s more than just a hobby. It’s the love of the music and wanting to know who the next big act will be! And I’ve always been that way. I’ve always prided myself in my ability to find new acts. I tell people to pay attention to the artists we book as our openers.
Noise: Do you look for any particular qualities in the artists that you book?
Kathy: Yes and no. I feel like it goes beyond just their talent. I like to see musicians who are at home on stage, those who can make the audience feel comfortable and are engaging—they’re passionate about what they do. Some people are kind of like oh, ho hum, and they just do it. Something’s not there. Then there are others who sometimes are having a good day, and sometimes they’re not.
You have this whole caliber of artists and some are on their way up, some have made it, and some are on their way down. And I feel that it’s important to present a mixture of those. Even if we don’t have huge crowds for a lot of the acts, I feel like it’s important to get their name out there. And for many artists the me&thee does that—it’s a good venue to put on their resume.
Noise: I’ve heard that the me&thee isn’t really referred to as a venue. How would you describe it?
Kathy: A listening room. Even recently, we had Girls, Guns, and Glory. They blew us away. We didn’t have a huge crowd, but they said, “People listened to us.” They couldn’t believe it. They’re used to people in clubs or bars that are loud and the audience isn’t always paying attention to the band. We get that reaction all the time. It’s a unique audience, people who do have the wherewithal to search for good music, quality music. It’s a different environment.
Noise: What’s kept this place going for 43 years?
Kathy: The volunteers, obviously. When I started volunteering here in 1997, we only had $200 in the bank. I panic about every show. The pre-sales—there’s no rhyme or reason, sometimes we only get a few, and sometimes two-thirds buy at the door.
It’s just knowing how to price it and how to market it, and doing it the best way. When I first started running publicity for this place, we dealt with typewritten, photocopied press releases with eight-by -ten black and white glossies, and now it’s a whole new ballgame with the social media and then figuring out how to reach the demographics. I’m still finding out, and I’m still open to new ways.
Noise: What’s the music community like in the North Shore area?
Kathy: Depends on your definition of community. It’s interesting, because Cape Ann, they have music seven nights a week, I think a little further south down here, it’s not as vibrant as maybe the Boston/Somerville area. There are good open mics and things like that. The me&thee is a unique music space!
There’s more to the community than the singer-songwriters. A lot of the people that come here are fans of the acts. It’s that kind of community, as far as people that are passionate and know what they like. That’s the thing I love about this music—it’s so under the radar. There are so many people that don’t know they could have access to these shows for $15, rather than go see something for $50, $60, $70. I use James Taylor as an example—he’s a singer-songwriter and he made his way up the ranks. People don’t dig deep for their music these days. I think they’re complacent with what they hear on American Idol or the top 40 radio. We offer such a rich assortment of great acts. It would be nice if people would experiment and try out some new music!
Noise: Are there any misconceptions that people have about the coffeehouse scene?
Kathy: There are misconceptions about the quality of the music. It gets down to people have busy lives, if they’re not as immersed into the music scene, then they may not be as aware of the acts we present.
What I love about the history of music and singer-songwriter is the influence of acts that I liked in the ’70s and reinventing that kind of sound and making it different. I feel like we’re a hidden jewel here. I’d love to have people say, “I wonder who’s playing at the me&thee tonight,” and take a chance. I love that when it happens. In fact, we have a success story about that. There was this guy who started coming here four years ago. He’d come and sit in the back all the time. Finally I said, are you a fan of this act? He said, “No,” then said, “I’ve just come to realize that everyone you book, I like.”