EASTHAM — After two and a half years, the lights at the First Encounter Coffee House in Eastham’s Chapel in the Pines will finally be on again — at least for a while.
Starting on Nov. 26, a series of three winter concerts will continue a live music tradition that began when the coffee house opened in 1974. There were few music venues on the Outer Cape at the time, and most were noisy places where drinking took priority over listening. From the start, First Encounter was an intentionally smoke- and alcohol-free space that was all about the music.
“It was part day care, part cultural center,” recalls longtime Eastham resident Bob Seay, who lived nearby. His neighbor Linda Squire Weissenberger, who taught music in the Provincetown schools, remembers how neighborhood kids would help with food prep and setting up the venue for shows. “By the end of a concert they’d be curled up sleeping at the back of the hall with blankets and sleeping bags while the musicians played their encores at the front,” says Seay.
It might have been Tom Rush singing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” that fed their dreams:
“And the seasons, they go round and round, the painted ponies go up and down; we’re captive on the carousel of time….”
A “swan song” concert when the coffee house closed in 1978 drew close to 200 fans, some listening from outside through open windows. Bill Staines was on the stage that evening. Already a regular at First Encounter, Staines was a whistler, yodeler, and singer-songwriter who booked his own gigs on the folk circuit for many years.
But things didn’t stay dark for long. By the following year the venue was up and running again, thanks to Karie Miller, who has kept the bills paid, the volunteers engaged, the artists booked, and the audiences coming ever since. Miller developed relationships with booking agents, musicians, and the folk music community that continue to this day. And what began as a small neighborhood coffee house became known regionally and nationally as a coveted performance venue.
Patty Larkin, who first played there in the 1980s, says she was thrilled to have people come to listen to her music. “First Encounter is the jewel in the crown of New England coffee houses,” says Larkin. “To sing there is like singing inside my 1946 Martin guitar. It’s warm and intimate, ringing with goodness.”
Other notable fans of the historic venue (the chapel was built in 1889) and its acoustics included John Hartford, who pulled up in his bus with his son and his fiddle for a weekend gig and stayed an entire week, playing through the night. Mose Allison’s appearance attracted jazz lovers from across the Cape; his set opened with a loud improvisational number that blew the speakers out. (Fortunately, ubiquitous Outer Cape “sound guy” Chris Blood was there, and he ran home to get his own sound system. Allison continued his concert in a softer vein.)
When folk legend Odetta came to play, she found there was no dressing room — only a tiny coffee house bathroom. So, she unpacked her makeup on the kitchen stove, and Karie Miller found a small mirror to help her get ready. “She didn’t complain a bit,” says Seay. Odetta then went on to sing for 90 minutes without any breaks for applause, holding the audience in thrall with her voice and presence.
There were many other memorable performances over the years. Legendary left-handed blues picker Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten played at First Encounter when she was 93 years old. Seay says that Cotten grabbed his arm on her way to the stage; he walked her down the aisle.
Several artists performed at the coffee house before achieving greater renown. Chuck Cole, who worked the sound for shows most nights beginning in the 1980s, remembers his excitement hearing Shawn Colvin play when she was first starting out. (Like other community members who worked at First Encounter, Cole was a volunteer; only the musicians were paid.) And musician and long-time WOMR DJ Denya Levine says she was blown away by a then-unknown Iris DeMent.
This winter’s concerts were organized by Sarah Burrill, who started playing open mic nights at First Encounter when she was 14. David Roth will play on Saturday, Nov. 26, continuing a long tradition of shows over Thanksgiving weekend. Eastham-based jazz singer Mozelle Andrulot will perform on Saturday, Dec. 17, and Kim Moberg will open for singer-songwriter Greg Greenway on Saturday, Feb. 11.
And after that, who knows? Miller, who has been the heart and soul of First Encounter for almost five decades, says she’s open to see what happens.
“In the words of Iris DeMent,” says Miller, “I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”