As a singer and keyboard player with the folk-pop band Legacy, Ellen Bukstel Segal learned long ago how to work a room. Unfortunately most of the rooms in which her band performed were not exactly conducive to listening to music -- even playing it, for that matter. They were cramped, smoky, and full of people more interested in chowing down, getting sloshed, and chatting loudly than in paying attention to what was happening on-stage.
Last September Segal, her friend Gerald Weissfeld, and her rabbi Rami Shapiro decided to create a different kind of music venue: Sacred Grounds Coffeehouse. "People walk away from this with such a different feeling because it's not a restaurant, a bookstore, or a bar where you have to battle the noise, the eating, the smoking, and the drinking," explains Segal. "There's no fighting with cappuccino machines here. We have a venue where we feature the artist and raise money."
It just so happens that this particular venue is also a synagogue -- Temple Beth Or -- located in a small house in a Kendall neighborhood zoned for commercial use. Every other month since September, Beth Or has hosted Sacred Grounds in a concert-style setting plunked right in the middle of its living room-sanctuary. About 180 people can be accommodated on chairs in the dimly lighted room, which is equipped with a sound system. Part stand-up comedian and part master of ceremonies, Weissfeld, whom Segal jokingly refers to as her "co-conspirator," directs the action. The evening begins with a one-hour open-mic session, during which amateur musicians sign up and perform one original song. Two featured artists are each allotted a short set, then comes a refreshments break. The second half of the evening consists of a song swap, with the headliners alternately singing and playing. The festivities usually end around midnight. "We're an early crowd," notes Segal. "This is Kendall!
"This is like going to opera almost or any theater where people are sitting in rows looking at the performer," she adds. "The musicians -- they're the focus, they're the important persons." Among the important persons who have played at Sacred Grounds: folksinger-songwriters Magda Hiller, Rod MacDonald, and Amy Carol Webb, plus Segal's band Legacy -- Segal, her brother Gary Bukstel, friend Andy Neuman, and sometime percussionist Steve Rosenberg -- named in memory of her husband Doug, who died ten years ago of hemophilia-related AIDS. All musicians are paid a percentage of the ten-dollar cover charge. Another portion of the proceeds goes to People of the Book, a temple outreach program that distributes books to children in elementary schools.
A graphic artist and mother of three, Segal runs her own design business from her home when she is not doing publicity for Sacred Grounds or searching for musicians by soliciting audition tapes and hearing them perform. Then there's the power of word of mouth: Recently acts have been finding her. This Saturday evening's bill boasts local singer Marianne Flemming and Washington-based folkie Kimberly Bass, who is on the road plugging her album titled, coincidentally, Sacred Ground. Bass heard about the event and added the night to her tour schedule.
In the future Segal hopes to obtain corporate sponsorship so she can assemble all the artists who have performed at Sacred Grounds to participate in a music festival, and perhaps make a video. Next year she would also like to direct proceeds from the door to AIDS-related charities. Does the fact that the artists are performing in a house of worship make for a quasi-religious experience? "There's no reference to Judaism at the coffeehouse, but the atmosphere is definitely very spiritual," Segal says. "It's a quiet, intimate room that sparks something really special in the performers. The audience leaves here filled up with great music and a great connection with the artists. They become new fans."