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Passing It On - A Few Kind Words with Geoff Bartley
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
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And it don’t take much to wag my tail.
Just give me hard-boiled eggs, a little beer and a pail.
You’ve got to work pretty hard to drive me away
But one kind word and I will stay.
(- "One Kind Word")

For the past seven years, singe/songwriter Geoff Bartley has been hosting an open mic night at Central Square’s neighborhood Cantab Lounge. Once known primarily as the home of R&B legend Little Joe Cook and his Thrillers, this local hangout has since become the Monday night scene for many of greater Boston’s hottest musical up-and-comers.

A veteran of the singer/songwriter circuit, Geoff Bartley takes great pride and pleasure in sharing his own stories through song. However, he takes at least equal delight in assisting others in their attempts to do the same.

Though he has oft been invited to perform with some of the grandest names in music, it is Bartley’s involvement with the next generations of musical masters that truly sets this generous giant apart. Despite having had the mutual honor of sharing stages with the legendary likes of Richie Havens, repeated stage-mate Tom Paxton, Dr. John and Doc Watson, Greg Brown, John Gorka, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Shawn Colvin (who repays the favor with a guest appearance on Bartley’s latest release, "One Kind Word"), Bartley focuses much of his musical attention on the greener stars who step up to the mic every Monday night in Central Square.

Born in New York but raised in Maryland, Bartley came to Boston to attend B.U. and stayed for most of the rest of his life. Armed with the influences of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave Van Ronk and Bruce Cockburn, Bartley began writing and performing around the Boston area. Soon attracting the likes of folk legend Tom Paxton, with whom he regularly appears, he also attracted the attention of the owners of the Cantab, which had until that point been a neighborhood bar and restaurant, far from the folkie community of the neighboring Square.

"The job just dropped into my lap," Bartley recalls. "I had to develop it…to turn it from a possibly hostile or [at least] indifferent [place] to a supportive [one]."

Left with the responsibility of creating a coffeehouse atmosphere in a beer and booze room, Bartley encouraged early participants to come play more or less for him (that is, for an established and experienced member of the musical community). In striving to create a successful bottom line for the venue’s owners, Bartley simultaneously cultured a comfortable atmosphere where all types and levels of performers could come to try and hone their craft.

"Everybody can come," Bartley enthuses "and it’s okay to just come down and check it out…we want it to be comfortable!" And Bartley’s wishes appear to be coming true. On any given Monday night, broad handfuls of performers come by and everyone from the Harvard illuminati to the "incoherent drunks" clap along when the brave participants finish their varied songs- songs which range from traditional folk to a cappella and the occasional world music.

"I tend to be prone to try to include everyone," Bartley premises. "Especially young open-mic-ers." However, he cautions, "I am careful to avoid unwarranted praise [or] unwanted advice." Even so, the Cantab is well-known for its relaxed, constructive and fun feel- a feel which attracts a steady stream of regulars and newcomers each and every week.

"I [also] try to be candid," Bartley stresses. "I don’t want to lie [and] I’m not going to tell someone he’s great when he obviously isn’t." On the other hand, Bartley reassures that "when somebody knocks me out, I tell him!" This open, honest policy has allowed rookies to get a real feel for what lies ahead, while developing the talents and attitudes of more experienced performers, raising all boats in a consistently rising tide of support. Though they are only given a pair of chances to show their stuff on any one night, Bartley claims that, even in a two-song set, a great deal can be discerned about an artist. While he realizes that four or five appearances may give a more fair or complete picture and that many artists only truly "blossom" after eight or ten (repetition leading to relaxation and revelation), vital elements such as stage presence and attitude come across.

"When playing on a strange stage before a strange audience in a strange town…two songs hardly [give you] time to fuck up!" Bartley contends. Even so, the brief appearance relates what Bartley calls a "big jolt of information." While Bartley admits that he can not always gauge potential from one night’s performance, he most often comes away with at least "90% of the vibe."

When asked what he thinks of as the "hardest part" of the open mic experience, Bartley cleverly responds that, for most people, "finding the Cantab is the hardest part." Fortunately, Bartley is now well rehearsed at giving directions to the Mass Ave mecca.

Now 50, Bartley was recently signed to Waterbug Music. However, Despite satisfying album sales and inclusion in numerous radio "Top 10" lists, Bartley is having difficulty arranging performance appearances for himself. Though he considers music and life to be "inseparable," he is wise enough to realize the divisions of music and how some are more popularly-related than others, even if they may not speak nearly as much of the people who embrace it. Whereas Rock is comprised of "entertainment…theatrics…surface…and escapism" and Bluegrass and Country act as a more "social" genre (through their involvement with dancing and the like), Barltey posits Folk to be the music of "ideas…values…and insight into the human experience- how to live life…and individual development." Folk music, Barley claims, is "written by real people about real events in their lives." Though some "Folk" artists have bridged the gap to the popular realm (Bartley makes special note of Bob Dylan, who took Woody Guthrie’s stories of "the little man" and brought them electrifyingly to the mass audience), Folk is not a "commercial form." Therefore, Bartley concludes, the real lesson of music and of live is to "be kind to other people. Be kind." A hard lesson, indeed, but one which Bartley struggles with every day, both in his own music and his life.

Having realized that he may not set the world on fire with his music, Bartley laughs off his frustrations and focuses on what he does have and uses these strengths to contribute to the lives of others. As a result, he has been able to transform a bar, its management and its customers, along with the careers of the scores of artists who have been introduced by this generous, kind artist.

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