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Interview with Brenda Wirth about "Rosie's Cafe"

By Gary Wien

How long have you been setting up the Rosie's Cafe shows? What was the inspiration behind doing a show like this in the house concert tradition?
I started out by hosting Rod Picott at my friend's house in Wall, back in 2004. I had seen Rod perform at The Strand Theatre with Slaid Cleaves, then later at Harry's Roadhouse and The Saint. He was such a nice guy and terrific songwriter that I wanted to do something to help promote his music. So, I asked him if I could host a house concert for him.

I had been to a few house concerts in South Jersey so I knew how they were supposed to feel - lots of nice people, who really love music, and who sit quietly and hang on every word from the performer. Not to mention that it's BYOB and that everyone brings a potluck dish. I was totally blown away by some of the great food people brought that night!

I had no trouble getting an audience to fill all the seats we had set up at my friend's house. Even those who didn't know Rod came away with a new-found respect for his music and for the house concert experience. I was psyched. I knew that I wanted to repeat that feeling with other concerts.

My second show was for the newly-formed, Americana female trio, Red Molly. I think that this may have been their first house concert. I had seen Red Molly perform when they first started playing out (at the Indigo Coffee House) - when they only knew nine songs together as a band. I asked them on the spot if they would do a house concert for me.

That show was more than sold-out. I had to stand the whole evening.

In fact, it was Laurie MacAllister of Red Molly who asked me what I called my house concert series, as she needed to include the info on Red Molly's website. George and I had thrown around the name "Rosie's Cafe Music" as a name to use for publishing his songs. So, I used it for the house concerts. It's funny, at the time, I didn't think I HAD a house concert series - I just wanted to do another house concert :)

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The Church provides a nice stage and good sound for the artists, how did you come across this place for the venue?
What happened is that my friend sold her house in Wall, but I had already booked Red Molly for another show. I told Cook Smith about my dilemma and he offered the use of the hall at his church.

When I checked it out, I was thrilled. The hall had room for a lot more people and a full kitchen. We would usually get 30-35 people at a house concert. At the church hall, we could easily fit 100. Plus, there were more bathrooms and lots of parking spaces.

Cook has been instrumental in keeping the series going. He does the sound and the lighting - hauling all his equipment over to the church whenever we have a concert. He is also a great promoter. I guess Cook and I do all this because we both love live music and want to share it with others.

We had around 60 people for that Red Molly show. The following month, I did another Rod Picott show, and that one had 87 people!

Things seem to have come full-circle though. In the last year and a half, we have begun to host smaller shows again, in either my living room in Brick or Cook's home in Loch Arbour. These shows are even more intimate than the church hall, and are very satisfying to host. I think I'm leaning toward having more of these smaller shows in our homes - saving the church hall for the bigger names when we need more room.

Some people may not know about the real Rosie... can you tell me a little about the dog that inspired the show's name?
Aw, Rosie. One of the sweetest dogs you'd ever want to meet. She was a Border Collie mix - we called her a border-line collie :)

We got her from the shelter when she was four years old. She had been thrown from a car and then hit by another car, breaking her back leg. She ran from the accident, then dug a hole in which she birthed a litter of 4 puppies! The wonderful people from the Jersey Shore Animal Center in Brick found her and nursed her and her pups back to good health.

We lost Rosie in May 2009. She was 16 1/2 years old. My heart still aches.

How can an artist possibly get involved with a Rosie's Cafe show? Should they send you a CD? Or do you basically scout out artists and invite them?
That's possibly the hardest part of hosting these concerts. First of all, most of my friends are musicians. There's no way for me to have all of them play shows at the church hall unless I give up my day job.

Cook and I don't get paid for doing these shows. All the money goes to the performers. My mission is to spread the word of touring musicians whose music has touched me. If I can get one of my local musician friends to open for one of these acts, that 's great. But, even that gets sticky. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings by not inviting them to play. I just try to get an act that is complimentary to the main act.

I get CDs in the mail from performers and booking agents all over the US who have heard of Rosie's Cafe because of the internet. The problem with that is that I usually haven't seen the artist in person, and I don't know if I'll like them live. I try to book acts that I've seen in person, not just someone who has a good album.

Who have been some of your favorite artists to perform at a Rosie's Cafe show?
Wow, because I only book acts that I already love, that's a tough one.

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Of course, Rod Picott and Amanda Shires are two favorites. And Red Molly, without a doubt! We had Michael Smith ("The Dutchman" and "Spoon River") here earlier this year and he just blew me away. I got the feeling that he really enjoyed himself too.

We've had Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart a couple of times. They're lots of fun. We've also done a couple of WAVE Gathering shows. We've hosted a couple of shows for Greg Trooper, and two for Luke Brindley. The show with Anais Mitchell was wonderful

We've also done some songwriters-in-the-round shows with local artists. These shows were amazing! Once we had Janey Todd, Keith Monacchio, Bobby Strange and George Wirth. Another time we hosted Sandy Mack, Ken Shane, Michael Brett and George.

Over the years we've hosted: Slaid Cleaves, Rick Barry, Arlan Feiles, a show with Anthony Fiumano (now Anthony Walker) & Alex Brumel, Frank Bressi, Chris Smith from The Amboys, one show with Amanda Duncan & Joanna Burns, Patrick Fitzsimmons with Denny Tilton, Frank Fotusky, the J & E Company, Abbie Gardner and Anthony da Costa.

Who would you love to see be part of a future show?
I'd love to have Red Molly back. They've gotten so big that Rosie's Cafe probably won't hold the crowd. Still, I would love to have them back again.

I'd also like to get someone like Dan Bern. That would be very cool.

Rosie's Cafe is a perfect place for the acoustic singer-songwriter - a place where the audience pays attention to what the artist is saying. The thing about these concerts is that the artist gets as much from the audience as the audience gets from the artist.

What's the most difficult thing about putting a show like this together?
Other than choosing which artist to book for a show, it's hard to get the word out to people other than my core audience - the ones on my email list who come to as many of my shows as they can. A lot of the time, I don't feel that the performer promotes the show as much as I do. I wish that would change.

Asbury Park is such an incredible music town. On any given night, there are at least three shows in town that I'd like to attend. Rosie's Cafe just adds to that list of great places to hear music.

What's the most gratifying?
Seeing the smiles on both the performers and the faces in the audience during and after the shows is the best part of it for me. I just love it! I love bringing all these music-loving people together in such an intimate atmosphere.

Do you know how it feels when you do something for somebody else that makes you feel good? Well, that's what it's like.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 07/27/2010



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