Caf Shows Dish Out Good Music

Danielle Dreilinger
May 14, 2009
Yeah, it's a cafeteria. What's it to you? Alex Bresee at the Rage Against the Machine tribute, October 2008.
A Rage Against the Machine cover band rocks out, October 2008: Ben Backus on bass, Dave Vanderlinde on drums, Ivan Chopik on guitar.
Jon Dostou of Survival of the Physicist during soundcheck.
Leave your trays, bring your guitars.
Survival of the Physicist
Though it's a tribute show, the Rage Against the Machine stand-ins rage.
Rage Against the Machine cover show
Photo by Hannah Skinner
Photo by Hannah Skinner
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Hannah Skinner
Photo by Hannah Skinner

Jon Dostou was psyched about his new band. He'd put together some songs, performed a recital with a few musicians, then grabbed a few more to join them. They had a name: Survival of the Physicist. Now it was time to test their complex jazz/fusion mix on stage. In a casual way, in front of their peers. 

It was time for a caf show

Though outsiders buzz about Cafe 939, the most popular place for all-ages, eclectic, student shows remains... the cafeteria.

Sitting in the caf show office, Angela Baughman, student manager for the 2008–2009 school year, flipped through a 25-page folder of applications. "This is my waiting list," she said—for a venue that opens at 10 p.m. because the food crew leaves at 8:30.

Check out the caf show schedule on Myspace.

The DIY nature has been part of the charm since caf shows started in 1987. "People love them," said Scott Benton, the sound guy at Survival of the Physicist's April 22 performance. "Just the idea of caf shows. Being in a cafeteria, transforming it into a venue."

The transformation's in the artistry, not the surroundings, which resemble a small-town teen center: no-pile carpet and a life-sized cutout urging students not to waste food. (It was Earth Day.) But the new sound system put any community center to shame.

"It's a low-key environment, and we're just trying to see how we sound," Dostou said. He turned off all the fluorescents and put a single light on the floor before the band launched into pieces with goofy names like "j.k.lolz!!" but complicated interlocking melodic lines. 

Clearly, the room is open to experimentation. Berklee staff member Jane Stachowiak was the coordinator of Student Activities in 1987 and helped foster the idea after students came up with it.

Because the shows have fewer parameters and a shorter scheduling lead time, Stachowiak thought they let students be "nimble." They can book gigs with bands they formed that semester. "If someone has an idea, it can happen maybe in the next six weeks," she said.

Also alluring: They've always been free. Students poked their heads in throughout Survival of the Physicist's hourlong set on their way to the practice rooms. Baughman's seen people come down from the 150 dorm in their pajamas.

Baughman books a mix of original acts, ensembles, and cover bands. The last usually pack the house, she said. Inscribed in caf show lore is the semester that had three Rush tributes.

You never know who'll stop by. Paula Cole, John Mayer, and Susan Tedeschi all played caf shows in their time at Berklee. Last year, Prince's drummer John Blackwell sat in with the Prince Ensemble.

True, the room's day job and moonlighting occasionally clash. Benton walked in last year to set up for the ultra-popular Tower of Power Ensemble to find a pile of wet sand on the floor. It was the cafeteria's beach day. Benton had to put the band behind the salad bar.

The experience can take students beyond the basement. Stachowiak saw caf shows "as a place where students could really develop skills," in leadership as well as technique. Benton concurred. He does sound in pro venues; much of what he knows came from working caf shows, he said.

Be they sweaty or mellow, caf shows are "a special little Berklee thing," Baughman said. 

Though Survival of the Physicist drew appreciative friends instead of a packed house, "we're real glad that people are digging it," Dostou said.

Afterwards, the band helped put back the tables.

Click on the photo to see scenes from the caf. Special thanks to contributing artist Hannah Skinner.