This wasn’t the night for “cool” cafÃ© jazz. The wind was pushing sharp; the sidewalks down into University Village were variably shoveled. I gratefully ducked into the storefront and remained a little numb even through my first coffee. Still sluggish, I was mystified by the banjo being uncased and readied in the performance corner. It turned out that the saxes and clarinets were taking a bow, tonight–that I had heard it wrong. The country-blues seemed a whole lot warmer to me, anyhow.
The Coffee Alley, just opened this past December, is the newest addition to the cluster of restaurants and businesses at the intersection of Racine and Taylor. It’s a slick space. The tastefully bare brick, the classily exposed ducting, the artfully distressed paint make it an almost archetypal coffee shop. They’ve offered live entertainment showcasing local talents and professionals for about the past five weeks. Originally turning their mics to the public for what I learned were Saturday-night jazz shows, the Alley has only recently started scheduling a more varied range of Friday evening performers.
Tonight was a spirited run of country covers and original compositions by guitar duo Erik Hellman and Jessie Fisher. It was half-past eight and I was bit early. I took a table and watched the Alley fill with UIC students, music aficionados, and Village residents. The 9pm starting time drew near; friends drew tables together. A few uncorked the Alley’s BYOB policy. As the music began, conversations pleasantly blurred together, the fine-machined coffee equipment purred in counterpoint, and the Alley glowed and murmured through its glass storefront, against the cold dark.
Laptops flashed, discussions burned brightly but indistinctly. I came to see the Alley as less of a speakeasy and more of a creative hothouse. The duo’s charged strings gave the air a western valence, and the Alley assumed a second–though not uncomplimentary–feel. Their repertoire relaxed with the audience, and didn’t fear a little silliness for effect, even risking a countrified “…Baby One More Time.” Between songs, their colored anecdotes and playful banter earned mellow, gracious laughs.
The banjo for the last set suddenly tumbled to the floor. We collectively leaned forward. The damage was irreparable on-stage. Erik balanced the banjo’s pot on his knee and urged Jessie to play, improvising a percussion section and winning our applause–seeming to me another happy accident. I was warmly content ducking off the Alley’s doorstep. Like the cafÃ©’s steaming, overfull cups, the night had brimmed with friendly conversation, pliant wit, and a happily unspecific goodwill.