Just Plain Folk

It's a Saturday night in Homestead and most of the action in town is centered at the Main Street Cafe. The sounds of Bob Dylan capture the attention of a rapt audience here, similar to the way all-star tributes to folksingers like Carole King and the late Phil Ochs used to hold these crowds in sway years ago. No, it's not Dylan himself doing the serenading -- the Bobster's tunes come via a group called Big Brass Bed, led by singer/songwriter and local favorite Rod MacDonald. Likewise, while neither King nor Ochs have ever graced Main Street Cafe's stage, other luminaries have made their way to this faraway stretch in south Miami-Dade County. Though most of their names -- Janis Ian, Richard Shindell, Cheryl Wheeler, Ellis Paul, and Cliff Eberhardt among them -- are known solely to their folkie clientele, they include some of the best acoustic performers on the scene today.

There's another star in the house tonight: Steve Boone, an original member of legendary pop act the Lovin' Spoonful and co-author of one of the band's signature songs ("Summer in the City"), as well as the bassist on some of Dylan's early recordings. The crowd is mostly made up of ordinary folks, the regulars, a mix of thirty-, forty-, and fiftysomethings: aging hippie types and Sixties survivors. One observer notes that the cafe probably boasts more ponytails per square foot than anywhere else in South Florida.

They congregate here six days a week, drawn by acoustic folk, country, blues, and rock and good vibes, to fill the cafe's tables and counter space, 100 seats in all. "It's basically the ambiance that attracts people to this place," suggests Wendy Lewit, a Homestead schoolteacher. She says she's been coming here at an average of two days a week for the past three years. "It's like going back in time," she explains. "They had places like this when I lived in New York City in the Sixties and Seventies. Everybody's friendly and the food's delicious."

Noel Cleland concurs. An engineer by day who plays keyboards by night with popular oldies band the Geezers, he's also a vegan who likes the food on the menu -- mostly the veggie wraps, homemade soups, and generous salad bar -- as much as the music. "It's a great place to come because they have lots of vegetarian choices. That's a unique thing in South Florida ... it offers food choices that are compatible with my lifestyle and entertainment that's compatible with my tastes," he raves.

Like the coffeehouses that once littered Greenwich Village and collegiate enclaves in Boston, Austin, and Nashville, Main Street Cafe provides an organic experience. It's a flannel-and-sandals kind of place where the intimacy between the audience and performer allows everyone to interact in an up-close-and-personal kind of way unimaginable in larger, more cavernous venues. "Overall, it's the attitude of the people who run this place that makes musicians want to perform here," MacDonald, another New York emigré, comments between sets. "They're musicians themselves so they set the tone. They expect the audience not to talk during the show. They have a good sound system and a good sound person to run it. I've always believed that's what the audience wants, that level of professionalism. And as a professional musician, I appreciate it as well."

"Being a singer/songwriter myself, as well as having a background in theater, is certainly a plus to performers who come through the cafe," says Laurie Oudin. A talented musician and former actress, Oudin co-owns the cafe with her partner, Steve Damsky. "I understand their side of the business as well as my own. I always treat a performer with respect -- no artist should be treated with anything less."

Oudin, a native of Connecticut, and Damsky, a Miami homeboy and former CPA, met in the mid-Eighties. Drawn together by friendship, they decided to start a business that would satisfy her artistic inclinations and utilize his financial prowess. "Being from the Northeast, it was a bit of a shock coming to South Florida and finding there wasn't a history of acoustic listening rooms like there was in New England," says Oudin. "It's sometimes been a struggle to educate people that music is something to pay attention to, not something in the background like in a sports bar, where you shoot pool and talk loudly over the TV noise."

Main Street Cafe opened six years ago; the eatery occupied half of the space and a store that sold used CDs, T-shirts, and gifts took up the other. While the coffee, juices, smoothies, homemade soups, deli sandwiches, and vegetarian specialties were a staple from the start, it wasn't until six months had passed before the co-owners made their first foray into live music via Friday open-mike nights and Saturday-night shows featuring house band the Pathfinders. Eventually Oudin expanded her reach by featuring local performers, among them Carol Webb, Magda Hiller, and Grant Livingston. In time she began to get calls from booking agents for national acts looking for other venues to fill their Florida tour schedules. With the CD operation floundering, the wall between the two businesses was torn down and the cafe was expanded to fill the entire room. A larger stage with improved sound and lighting replaced a makeshift setup by the front window.

Oudin does a lot of multitasking: She's a hostess, emcee ("The smoothie and cappuccino machines will be turned off during the performance," she cautions during the evening show), talent coordinator, and publicist. But her roles don't always play out behind the scenes. Special events aside, she spends Saturday nights onstage, singing and playing rhythm guitar with the Pathfinders alongside sound engineer and lead guitarist Scott Emmons, drummer Mario Carvajal, bassist Josh Aberman, and vocalist Karin Gerardin. "There have been times when I literally have had to jump off the stage and make someone a cappuccino," moans Oudin. "I'd like to think those days are gone, but I still need to be ready in case someone calls in sick. Sometimes I do a hundred different things in one night."

While Oudin often faces a daunting set of responsibilities, it's even more challenging to run a successful venue that caters to down-home entertainment in a decidedly pop-flavored environment like South Florida. "The performers that play at the cafe are some of the best singer/songwriters in the country," she maintains. "However, they aren't in the commercial 'pop' market and, with the exception of Michael Stock's wonderful Folk and Acoustic Music program [Sundays from 1:00-4:00 p.m. on WLRN-FM (91.3)], will probably never get radio airplay in Miami. They fly below the radar. If we don't support these artists, they'll no longer come to South Florida, and that would be a great loss to our community ... culturally and spiritually."

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Lee Zimmerman