Space Music has Landed

The bi-monthly Cosmic Coffeehouse in Crosswicks is like an homage to the "happenings" of the 1960s, complete with psychedelic light shows, fog machines and lava lamps decorating the electronica musicians’ keyboards.

By: Susan Van Dongen

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New Age artist Ombient is a frequent performer at the Cosmic Coffeehouse in Crosswicks.


   At last, "electronica" or "space" music, the square peg of musical genres, has found a home in the area — the Cosmic Coffeehouse at the Crosswicks Community Center. It seems like an unlikely venue for trippy sonic explorations, but Ken Palmer, co-founder of the coffeehouse series, thinks the cosmos has aligned for anyone who plays or enjoys listening to electronica.
   On Jan. 10, the Crosswicks Community Association will present the third in a series of coffeehouse concerts, featuring original music by the Metuchen-based quartet Fringe Element. The bi-monthly events are like an homage to the "happenings" of the ’60s, complete with psychedelic light shows, fog machines and lava lamps decorating the musicians’ keyboards.
   "It’s been interesting," says Mr. Palmer, a graphic artist who also is co-founder of the space music group Brainstatik. "There hasn’t been anything in this area to fulfill that genre, especially a place to play original music. The shows have built themselves because people always know someone else who wants to play. The networking aspect has been a great fringe benefit. We’re kind of a collective of misfit musicians who don’t know where to go, so we all help each other. Plus you get to hear a lot of interesting music."
   Mr. Palmer says they originally invited musicians from all genres to perform, thinking the coffeehouses would become more like an open-mike night centered around the Hamilton area. Instead, people involved in the space music scene — from North Jersey to Philadelphia — have expressed interest.
   "It’s been embraced by the electronic scene more than any other," Mr. Palmer says. "They seem to be very organized as a collective and there’s an especially strong Philly scene. They really don’t have enough places to play because it’s not pop music, it’s not dance music and it’s a little too weird for the average small coffeehouse.
   "It’s more ‘sit-down-listen-to’ music," he continues. "Brainstatik has the same problem. Our music is all over the place, so it’s hard to define, hard to book a concert. The whole genesis of the thing came through the Brainstatik concerts we were doing, one of which was outdoors in August of 2002, in the middle of a heatwave. We still wanted a place to play, though. So we contacted the Crosswicks Community Association and said, ‘Let’s try something different. Let’s bring the concert indoors.’"
   Listeners are invited to sit and enjoy coffee and a variety of desserts provided by the community association. The music is lush and engaging, yet played at a reasonable volume — unlike a rock concert, where the sound level makes it impossible to converse. The groups also have created ethereal multimedia visuals to enhance the soundscapes.
   "It’s kind of a throwback to psychedelic rock shows but more subdued," Mr. Palmer says.
   So far, the coffeehouses have attracted a mature audience. Mr. Palmer says he’s mostly seen people in their 30s, 40s and 50s come out to the shows, noting that many of them might have been fans of experimental electronic bands such as Kraftwerk, Cluster and Tangerine Dream.
   "There’s a strong element of progressive (rock) fans, although we’ve also seen people who are interested in techno and dance music," Mr. Palmer says. "They look at this genre as the foundation of what they listen to — it’s like their classic rock. It’s been an obscure genre but it’s influenced a lot of current musicians, like Moby."
   Another variety of music that grew out of ’70s electronica is the loosely defined category called "New Age." In November, the coffeehouse was pleased to host keyboardist Don Slepian, one of the genre’s pioneers. The concert took place the evening of the recent lunar eclipse, which made things even more cosmic.
   "Don’s visit was a much anticipated boost to the series," Mr. Palmer says. "He’s an internationally acclaimed keyboardist, one of the founding fathers of New Age music, in fact. I think it helped raise our cache up a notch."
   Mr. Palmer says more cosmic evenings are in the works, with a March 13 concert featuring the Ministry of Inside Things and SNIB. The planners hope future coffeehouse events will include poetry readings, storytellers, a local talent showcase, acoustic singer-songwriters and jazz. The musicians donate their services, with the profits going to help the community association maintain the building.
   "The bands play for free, but they can set up tables and sell their CDs to help get some exposure," Mr. Palmer says. "That’s all anybody wants right now. None of us have aspirations to be pop stars. Most of us have wives and kids and jobs."
   The fact that the artists play all original music has been one of the keys to the appeal of the series.
   "It’s exciting to hear music that’s not being heard elsewhere," Mr. Palmer says. "Even though I don’t own a nightclub or a radio station, I feel like I’m making a contribution. It’s a good place for a band to start. People are stuck in their basements or home studios and they never let anyone hear their stuff, so this is a good place to test things out."
Fringe Element performs at the Cosmic Coffeehouse at the Crosswicks Community House, Main Street, Crosswicks, Jan. 10, 8 p.m. Admission costs $10 and benefits the Crosswicks Community Association. No one under 16 years old will be admitted. For information about the series, or about performing call (609) 298-1877, or e-mail Ken Palmer at brainstatik@aol.com. Cosmic Coffeehouse on the Web: www.cosmiccoffeehouse.org