After an almost two year hiatus, Steve McCoy and the rest of the six string inmates are once again running the Acoustic Asylum
by Lee Abraham
Puffing cigarettes and fidgeting with his third beer, the guy at the bar is clearly nervous. Heís already been waiting for an hour. Anxiously tapping his guitar case, he watches the regulars stream in one at a time. They seem overly animated and loud. "Whereís the list?," somebody asks. By now the place is getting full. All sorts of characters are showing up. Everybodyís got a guitar and a story to tell. Soon the eveningís host arrives. He checks out the sign up sheet somebody started and attaches it to his clipboard. After setting up the microphone he breaks the ice by playing a few tunes and chatting with the crowd. Grabbing the clipboard, he looks at the sign up sheet again and counts the names. Seventeen people are here to perform. Time to get the show rolling.
"All right you acoustic freaks," booms Paul Summers Jr., in his best announcerís voice, "please welcome..." - and so the evening goes. One by one, everybody whoís signed the list gets a chance to play. At least thatís how it was back in the good old days. Back when the Acoustic Asylum was a local institution... back when Summers was still living in Las Vegas.
"I founded the Acoustic Asylum at a small club called Zubies in 1992," recalls Summers. "I wanted to give the artists of our city a place to display their talents without having to deal with the B.S. of putting together a band and/or bringing in a following in order to get booked at a club." Prior to the Acoustic -Asylum-, Summers teamed up with longtime local troubadour Mark Huff for Acoustic -Madness-, a series of unplugged shows at Cafe Espresso Roma and Ferdinands.
Later on, when Summers started the Asylum, (he credits Brian Weiss, a writer for Scope Magazine as having coined the phrase, "Acoustic Asylum"), things began slowly. The first few nights only Summers and Huff showed up to play. Gradually though, the Asylum built a following. "Slowly, very slowly it caught on," says Summers. "Enough for me to be pursued by then the busiest nightclub in town, the Shark Club. They wanted to improve their image by catering more to locals, especially artists, and offered me Wednesday nights in their Lava Lounge."
Thatís when the scene gelled. But it wasnít automatic. Summers -worked- at making Acoustic Asylum a success. "Over the thumping boom of low-end dance music rattling the plate glass windows, I religiously ran the Asylum," he recalls. "From 10 p.m. until as late as 5 in the morning, I allowed anybody to display themselves, the only criteria being that it was done with acoustic instruments." Through Summerís diligence, the Asylumís loose and friendly format provided local musicians, grizzled veterans and bright eyed wannabees alike, a stage unlike any other in town. "In the early 90's," says Summers, "all you had in Vegas were metal bands trying to be Bon Jovi, alt-rock bands trying to shock you, and top-40 bands trying to make a living."
Todayís local scene is chock full of Asylum alums. Many of them got their first exposure to performing in public there. Bands such as Majik Alex, Her Body Cinnamon, The Melancholics, Mama Zeus, to name a few, all had members who showed up regularly. Steve McCoy of Soul Festival was one of the Asylumís most frequent inmates. As a member of the six string duo, Acoustic Messenger, psychedelic power trio Soul Festival, and his new project, Ground Luminosity, McCoy is known for his seamless, genre bending guitar work - a skill refined at the Asylums.
"I was always looking up to Paul, trying to show up at his gigs and jam with him," recalls McCoy. "Heís really able to play a lot of styles and thatís what Iím into." The musical connection between the two evolved, and when Summers relocated to Portland, he handed the clipboard over to McCoy. McCoy then recruited Martin Melancon, his partner in Acoustic Messenger, and the duo continued to co-host the Asylums.
That worked for a while, but when a management change ended the Shark Club run, they went to Cafe Espressa Roma. Temporarily anyway. "Then we did it at the Boston for awhile," says McCoy. "There are also a few mystery places that we bounced around at. There was one place we were at for just two nights... I canít even remember the name of it," he says with a laugh.
But regardless of -where- the Asylum happened, the format remained the same. "Everybody gets on a list, and you play until everybody on the list gets a fair amount of time," says McCoy. And soon as they get through the list, itís time for the jam session. "Since weíre in a bar anyway, we hang out and have jam sessions with whoever wants to play together. Thatís when it really starts to meld."
While the jams may be the most fun for the experienced players, nothing matches the adrenaline pumping buzz of a beginnerís open mic. debut. Doesnít matter if you knock Ďem dead or make Ďem squirm, nobody forgets their first time. "A lot of people who play an Acoustic Asylum are getting their first taste of playing live," says McCoy. "Usually people who go up there playing new stuff that nobodyís ever heard before, are usually very eager to hear stuff from other people that they themselves have never heard before. Itís always been an encouraging environment."
Although McCoy enjoyed hosting the Asylum, when Soul Festival began touring on regular basis, he was unable to maintain its weekly schedule. With no heir apparent to continue the hosting chores, the Asylum grinded to a halt at Cafe Nero in the summer of í98. Now, almost two years later, the Asylum is making a return at Legends Lounge. Together with McCoy, who will perform solo, as well as with Acoustic Messenger and Ground Luminosity, lots of the old inmates will reunite for an evening of acoustical merriment. As we go to press, Mark Huff, Tiffany Fredianelli, Glen Volsunga, Mark Hutchings, Steve Fodder, and Jeff Inman, among others, are slated to appear.
And although heís still living up in Portland and -wonít- be able to attend, Summers is happy to hear the news of the Asylum's reunion. "I still have every single sign in sheet from every single Asylum," he says. "To me, it was more than hosting an open mic, it was like family." Heís not alone. "A lot of people miss it," says McCoy. "Thereís a group of us. It wasnít just my decision to make it happen."