Cocoa was at rehearsal for the Full Monty, so Mocha Latte was filling in as emcee. First thing you need to know about Café Soul, the once-a-month spoken word and live karaoke open mic at the Lucas School House, is that almost everyone has an alias, a stage name, a nom de freestyle. Names don't change to protect innocence; they change to recover some innocence, some why-the-hell-not spirit that makes Café Soul a generous, unpretentious grooving good time.
After the first of many of raffles started last Wednesday night off at 9 p.m. -- a lucky winner won the kind of painting that probably hung well in the offices of donor and sponsor Western Southern Financial -- Mocha recited a poem putting power in its place (i.e., prostitution being the only institution offering bang for the buck). She then moved the night along, calling out each performer's name and asking, "Got soul?" -- to which the audience, numbering well over a hundred, responded, "Got soul!" Now in its thirteenth month, Café Soul has a churchly vibe, supportive of each performer, but never staid -- certainly not with DJ Needles throwing down between acts and in the breaks.
And not with a house band like Chad (keys), Wild Man (bass) and Lint (drums)—the latter being quite possibly the funkiest and hardest rocking drummer to pick up the tempo to a song he's never played before. Whether turning a frenzied original by Robert Dillon or Dylan (no, not that one) into a groove nicked from the Stones' "Heartbreaker" or guiding True through an India.Arie number, the band alone was worth the $10 cover. They can probably play anything in the Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross or Prince songbook, but they're most fun when improvising to an angry, fuck-the-thug-life poem or a teary-eyed, I-was-wrong-baby rap.
Performers get one song or poem -- though featured performer Lightning strutted her discourse for a solid fifteen minutes -- and they don't mess around. Sure, there's the archetypal acoustic guitars that won't get in tune or the ritual act of flipping through a journal to find an homage to Tupac, but mostly those signed up mean business. If you can forgive the American Idolatry of vocal gesticulation and hyper-melismatic curlicues on the end of every line, you'll hear some genuinely soulful singers having a blast on stage, in front of an audience that genuinely listens. And when they don't, the emcee will chide them into their places: "This ain't the Apollo, so respect the mic!"
-- Roy Kasten