Troubadours of Cape Cod

Jennifer Stratton performs with her husband, Don Boivin, at the Full Moon Open Mic session at the Ladies Library in Brewster earlier this year

by Lisa Cavanaugh

Every other Monday night, the regular patrons of O’Shea’s Olde Inne in Dennis are joined by an eclectic group of musicians. Lugging their instrument cases past the folks at the bar enjoying their pints of Guinness, these singer-songwriters gather in a loose circle around an antique trunk near the stage. The six or seven men and women greet each other, talk about what they’ve been working on and settle in to make some music. A more populous plugged-in night will kick off soon, but this early meeting is for trying out something new before getting up in front of the crowd.

Relative newcomer Chris LeBeau drives all the way from Sandwich to share his works-in-progress and to savor the “fun and inspiration” this supportive circle provides. As he tunes his guitar, he is joined by Doug Stetson, a veteran of the group, who proclaims happily that “This is where songs are born!” As each musician plays, the others listen, nod and join in with vocal harmonies and guitar accompaniment. The atmosphere is relaxed and congenial.

Todd Nickerson, who plays professionally as part of a duo called 6 East, admits he was “cramming to finish” the yet-to-be-titled song that he presents. “I guess it is kind of sad … don’t know where it came from,” he says. The soft melody and his winsome lyrics set a contemplative tone as more musicians enter from the back door. “It is great to get the feedback,” he says. “The community aspect is what I appreciate the most.”

The host and architect of this gathering is guitarist and singer Kathleen Healy, a Cape Cod native whose love of musical collaboration motivated her to create both this bi-monthly event at O’Shea’s as well as a weekly open mic night at the Harvest Gallery Wine Bar, just a few miles north on Route 6A. There, the bar is busy with customers sipping wine and nibbling tapas, but a similar feeling extends to the musicians who perform in front of the works of local artists that hang on the walls.

Healy starts things off with one of her new songs, then turns the mic over to Joe MacDonald, a former Massachusetts state policeman, who learned how to play the guitar while serving in the Air Force in Arkansas in the early 1960s. He favors covers, especially Americana and Celtic. His song about an old man and his memories drifts across the room, as Healy checks the sign-up sheet. There will be at least 15 performers that night.

“It took me a few years to convince the owner to let me do this,” Healy says, “But now it is a huge hit.”  Many are regulars, but there are a few first-timers, like D.J. Griffith, who entertains the crowd with his banjo. “Music is my passion,” he says. Griffith works as a garden expert at a local nursery but would also relish a career in music. “Either way, it is something that will always be in my life.”

Music has also filled the life of Brad Finch, who is in the antiques business and has been playing flute for more than 30 years. “I do it for the love of it,” he says. Self-taught and improvisational, Finch likes how collaborations spring up amongst the open mic aficionados. Finch attends as many events as his schedule will allow. He plays his flute the next night at the Full Moon Open Mic, the brainchild of David Roth, who has been running them for 10 years in community centers like the Brewster Ladies Library whenever his tour schedule allows him time back on the Cape. He played the clubs and coffeehouses of New York before landing in Eastham with his wife, and he wanted to bring that energy to the local musicians.

“What I wanted was a pin-drop atmosphere,” he says. “Everyone wants to be heard.” The instruments played include harmonica, ukulele, Native American flute and even the human voice; spoken word is encouraged by Roth. For some, music is an avocation to share with friends, for others it glimmers as a professional dream. Full Moon Open Mic corresponds to months with full moons, but doesn’t fall on Saturdays, allowing emerging artists to seek paying work.

One of the longtime Full Moon attendees is Don Boivin, who was so inspired he developed, along with Bert Jackson, the “Feed Your Love” open mic that is housed in Wellfleet Preservation Hall. Like so many of the local musicians who commune and share at these musical gatherings, Boivin feels music fills his soul. “You may have stepped away from it for some time,” he says, “but when you step up in front of the open mic, the passion comes back, stronger than ever.”

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