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So I don't have much in common with the sorts of people who really make spectacles of themselves, such as the performers I took in while surveying several artsy-fartsy coffee houses last week. The granola circuit is alive and well here, and parts of my excursion proved the adage my father liked to repeat, that stereotypes don't come from nowhere. But I was also surprised at what I saw, and ultimately, I came away impressed.
At the Willow House, I watched singer-songwriter James Miles step in front of an audience and realize that he would never be able to compete with the room itself. The 32-year-old local with a falsetto voice and a penchant for curious covers – Kylie Minogue's robotic dance hit "Can't Get You Out of My Head" done as a folk tune, for example – knew that despite the applause coming from the small crowd, he was only another bauble in a place known for its odd adornments. The Willow House is a Phoenix landmark that functions as a rendezvous point for the city's artistic flotsam and jetsam, a historic building made up of multicolored, intimate rooms decorated with penciled portraits of John Lennon, board games and shelves of children's books. With so much competing for the attention of its patrons, the coffee house's performers often end up as so much wallpaper.
But Miles knew how to roll with it. He even got some, well, mileage out of the place's doodads, pointing out the campy assortment of action figures on display next to 28 different varieties of incense for sale. "I was going to get the Sigmund Freud doll myself. I could take it up to girls and say, Tell me your dreams' or something," the singer told his audience. "The Jesus one might weird them a little too much."
Life on the granola circuit can indeed be dwarfing for the artist. Brodie Hubbard, 24, another local songwriter who played at the Willow House that night, pointed out that when you perform in a bar, there's at least some chance that some of the people crowding the stage have come that night specifically to see and hear you.
But at the coffee houses, you're pretty much on your own. During Hubbard's and Miles' sets, an elderly man sat at a table directly in front of the microphone, eating a sandwich on marble rye. He never paused once to gaze at the performers. The ghosts of John Denver and Woody Guthrie could have appeared onstage for a "This Land Is Your Land"/"Country Roads" medley, and homeboy still would have been lost in his pickle, and in picking the crumbs out of his mustache.
"I'm just happy to play anywhere," says Miles. "But you hope they're enjoying the set."
Perhaps Miles can adopt Tony Patiño's strategy. Patiño is a kick-ass guitar shredder, the kind who can tear through one of those '80s speed-metal solos without breaking a sweat. He's also a guy in search of a creative outlet and new and different collaborators. So he takes his act to Undici Undici Fine Art Coffeehouse in Mesa for open-mike nights.
The Undici Undici events are dominated by sensitive souls, the ones who love to share their feelings with a few chords and lyrics that are sincere beyond description. "When I look in your eyes/I see the meaning of my life," sang D.J. Salcido, another aspiring local, at a Wednesday night shindig last week. Cell phones ring and patrons drink coffee and beer and read newspapers. Again, the performers are wallpaper.
Then, Patiño, with pierced lip and dark, focused eyes, arrived. He spread eight pedals and machines with prerecorded drums and sound effects in front of him onstage. The lights dimmed, and the show began. Neon lights swirled, and images projected on the walls revealed globes, crosses, daisies and a coagulating, bubbling liquid that looked an awful lot like semen. Patiño shredded through a half-dozen or so instrumentals that might work as a goth soundtrack to a movie about World War II. This was one intense, weird, loud, obnoxious piece of work. Patiño whipped his hands all over the fretboard, stepping continuously on pedals, bending over to adjust levels and connecting with his avant-garde sounds.
"That's not what you would expect at an open mike," an emcee says over the PA as Patiño tore down at set's end.
"It's my way to release the tension from everyday bullshit," says Patiño, lounging after the performance. The 22-year-old Maricopa Community College music student says he hopes to record his material with friends at some point in the near future. Here's hoping the friends show up; at his open-mike pace, Patiño may just burn out like a bad fuse.
"When you're younger, you want to be louder," says Brodie Hubbard, who besides his Willow House show also appears at Modified Arts, another mecca for crunchiness. Hubbard started in high school punk bands. Now, he's acoustic, dabbling as much in blues as in traditional pop. "I welcome it. People seem to appreciate the work of someone who wants to air themselves out," he says. Even if they're not really listening, right, Brodie?