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Club Cafe resurrects a lost piano bar

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 28, 2011 04:19 PM

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It was an ordinary Thursday night on Columbus Avenue, but something extraordinary was happening.

Under the warm light of sconces and backlit stained glass, in a room lined with banquettes and tables full of dining and drinking patrons, a man played a piano while a woman and a man sang.

She was a belter, with a rich, husky voice; a ready laugh; and repertoire of rhythm and blues, soul, and pop. The male singer crooned a few lead vocals and provided harmonies, backups, and ironic counterpoint to his partner’s vocal arabesques. And the piano player shifted seamlessly from delicate ballads to bluesy vamps to hip-hop beats, often in seconds.

This scene wouldn’t have been so strange in Boston 30 years ago, or even 10. But in 2011, it’s a rare sight.

For one thing, this is Club Café, a bar and restaurant catering to the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents. There are fewer than 10 gay bars left in Boston, where once there were as many as 25, according to an archivist from The History Project, a local archive of LGBT materials from across New England. A few bars are mixed, but most are more than 90 percent male. There are none geared specifically to lesbian or bisexual women.

In the heyday of the gay bar, live entertainment was common, including piano players performing with either professional singers or audience members warbling their favorite Broadway show tunes. Some old-timers say Judy Garland herself would stop in to sing a few songs and down a few drinks when she was in town for a performance.

In the 2000s, as increased acceptance of LGBT people has expanded nightlife options and gay culture has shifted to more online meeting services and fewer social spaces, that type of cabaret-style performance space is all but gone. But in Club Café’s Napoleon Room the tradition lives on.

The space is named for the Napoleon Club, a Boston piano bar that closed in the late 1990s, and six nights a week it showcases a selection of emerging talents and local legends — several of them Napoleon Club alumni. Above it all hang three original stained-glass windows and two etchings from the Napoleon Club, on extended loan from The History Project.

For Club Café co-owner Jim Morgrage, 44, resurrecting the historic cabaret was a very personal project. The Napoleon Club was the first gay bar Morgrage visited when he began coming out as gay in the late 1980s. A native of Maine, Morgrage would drive down to Boston to participate in the city’s gay nightlife.

“I liked the mix of the piano and then the old-style disco that they had upstairs,” Morgrage recalled. He remembers, too, when the Napoleon Club’s owner died and the bar shut down for good.

“It was heartbreaking to watch them dismantle a bar that had been such a cornerstone, at least in Boston, in the gay community,” he said. “Kind of that old, gentlemen’s-type bar for all age groups.”

When Morgrage became a co-owner of Club Café two years ago, he decide it was time to bring back live entertainment, which the establishment had offered in various forms from its 1983 opening until around a decade ago.

He said it’s just good business. With so many nightlife options in the city, most of them welcoming to LGBT people, the cabaret experience is “something that would set us apart from those 8,000 other restaurants,” Morgrage said.

To create the room, Morgrage and his partner, Club Café co-founder Frank Ribaudo, installed a soundproof glass wall to split the dining area into two sections, and they named the new function area for the lost piano bar. To keep its sprit alive, they’ve brought in former Napoleon Club performers like Michelle Currie, a singer and pianist who offers a sing-along each Tuesday night, and Michael Kreutz, who leads group singing as well as an open mic during Wednesday’s “Broadway Hump Day.”

Sunday brings “Tea with the Dame,” featuring “Dame” Colleen Powers and pianist Jim Rice. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the room hosts a rotating series of Boston performers such as Carol O’Shaughnessy, Andy Lantz, Michael Thorne Scott, Steve SanSoucie and Rob Wendel.

So far, it’s been a success.

“It’s ironic, because it’s really popular, young and old,” he said. “Depending on who’s performing in there, it [changes] the age group a little bit, but it’s actually a lot more across-the-board in popularity than I thought it would be.”

On Thursday nights like this one, when the crowd at the club tends to be younger, the Napoleon Room’s host and pianist is 26-year-old Mike Flanagan, who also performs and records under the moniker “MRF” (so people can pick him out of the thousands of other Mike Flanagans online).

The Brockton native has been performing here since August of last year, with a rotating series of singers, instrumentalists, and dancers as collaborators. On this particular Thursday night, as on many in recent months, Flanagan performed with Lisa Bello, 29, who grew up in Hyde Park with her singer brother Louie Bello, and Winchester native Justin Waithe, 31.

The three came together by chance. Bello’s brother introduced her to Flanagan after performing on Flanagan’s 2010 album “Elevator Music.” They played the room together last New Year’s Eve.

“And after hearing her once, I was like, OK, I want her forever,” Flanagan said. Waithe joined the duo about three months back, after coming to the show one night with a mutual friend, also a singer, whom Flanagan had invited to sit in.

The trio’s set list ranges from Tina Turner to Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber to Carly Simon, often including extended medleys of songs by Aaliyah, Katy Perry, Lauryn Hill, Pink, and Beyoncé. Many songs they all know by heart, for others they simply pull up the lyrics on their smartphones.

“I love the fact that we can take a song, and whether someone else knows the framework and we build off of that, it just kind of evolves on its own, and it becomes something very special,” Waithe said.

They have an easy chemistry on stage and a dogged, show-must-go-on mentality. As they improvise and riff off one another, Bello and Waithe flub or forget the occasional lyric, which Bello plays off as a joke on herself, à la Ella Fitzgerald. But mostly they get it right, often even improving on the original. Their version of Perry’s “E.T.,” for example, is far more soulful and gripping than Perry’s robotic original.

The three are conscious of taking part in the tradition of the cabaret, but also interested in making it their own, and something that’s accessible to their generation, with its particular reference points.

“A lot of my friends come in here, they’re used to us being with the big, full, live bands,” Bello said. “But to sit here and see it so stripped down, it’s different and it’s inviting. It goes to that whole MTV Unplugged era, you know.”

What’s most important, they say, is keeping it fresh and spontaneous.

“I mean, really it’s two vocalists and a piano, but we try to give you as much as possible and have it be like a new experience, a different experience every time,” Flanagan said. “Because when I’m playing up here and it’s the two of them, I don’t feel like it’s just the three of us. It feels like much bigger … and anything can really happen.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Mike Flanagan, Lisa Bello, and Justin Waithe perform in Club Café’s Napoleon Room.

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