Short on money, staff, Coffeehouse to feature only student performances this semester

Liz Sieng

Photo Credit : Cornelius

The Coffeehouse last Friday, Feb. 19, set the tone for the semester as a line-up of student bands attracted a crowded audience.

“It was relaxed. People were really appreciative,” said first-year Ethan Maier, the accordionist for the first-year act “Bo Sagal and Friends.”

The concert featured three student acts, including numerous singers and musicians in “[first-year] Alejandro Fuentes and Friends” and the campus band Plateau.

Coffeehouse, which takes place Fridays from 9-11 p.m., is a popular series for live concerts at Whitman, often featuring performances from students and faculty and occasionally professional performers from outside Walla Walla. The WEB-organized series remains functional and popular despite continuing funding cutbacks and the restructuring of campus activities organizations last year. This spring the series will primarily feature student performances.

“We’re testing it out this semester,” said junior Matt Coleman, WEB’s music director and Coffeehouse’s leading organizer, who added that Coffeehouse programming should increase this spring.

The series held only six concerts during the fall 2009 semester, in contrast to previous years when it held concerts on nearly a weekly basis.  Coleman, who also manages large campus concerts through WEB, explained that the limited number of Coffeehouse concerts was a product of limited staff availability, not reduced funding.

Though funding cutbacks are affecting club- and student-led programming at Whitman in general, Coffeehouse production costs remain low since the series traditionally features volunteer student performers.

“Coffeehouse is really cheap to put on,” said Coleman, in comparison to the costs of large concerts featuring professional bands and performers. “We haven’t been affected that much.”

While opting to not bring in outside bands, Coleman is working to expand the range of student performers.

“The typical Coffeehouse performer is an acoustic guitar solo singer-songwriter, which is great. But I really want to change that. Whitman needs variety,” said Coleman.

Comprised of three different acts, the first show featured an array of student collaborations playing pop, rock, acoustic and folk music. At several points in the concert, members from separate acts combined to perform with one another.

“None of these people have really played their own sets, but by combining 10 people together we made a huge show,” said first-year Bo Sagal, who swapped positions on the guitar, harmonica, clarinet and vocals in multiple collaborations during the show.

Coleman said that many student performers expressed interest during the recruitment process. Coleman received positive responses to e-mails sent on the student listservs and contacts from known musical groups on campus.

“This is too good of a space for students not to perform. They can also build their skills professionally,” said Coleman, mentioning that Coffeehouse consistently attracts sizeable audiences.

In addition to expanding student participation in performances, Coleman is working to foster student involvement in production. Since last semester, he has organized the series with group of student volunteers.

First-year Hari Raghavan began volunteering after attending just a few Coffeehouses.

“It’s a pretty involved process. It takes a lot of effort to put these events on,” said Raghavan, describing how the team of volunteers divides up tasks, such as advertising, e-mailing and booking acts.

Though a lot of hard work goes into planning Coffeehouse, it is nonetheless rewarding.

“I really like that I get to [help] pick the artists who perform,” said Raghavan. “It’s an opportunity to give back to Whitman.”

While student acts will shape this semester, Coleman expressed his hopes that Coffeehouse will remain a student-based concert in the future.

First-year Yoni Evans, who performed on vocals and tambourine in “Bo Sagal and Friends,” encouraged students to perform at Coffeehouse.

“Anyone who has material should showcase it,” he said.

“[Coffeehouse] will be like a blank setting where students can do what they want,” said Coleman. “People can come embrace the stage. We’ll supply the sound and lights.”

Anyone interested in taking the Coffeehouse stage or in becoming involved behind-the-scenes should contact Coleman at [email protected].