Area’s acoustic folk music gains tradition: Silver Spring church is site for popular series, and more is in store

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Sound man, impresario and owner of Takoma Park’s venerable House of Musical Traditions, David Eisner is hunched over his portable soundboard in the upper meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. Like most Monday nights, it’s time for a folk music concert, courtesy of the Institute of Musical Traditions, a nonprofit offshoot of Mr. Eisner’s store, itself for many years a mainstay of Washington’s acoustic music community.

Home Brew, a Takoma Park acoustic band opening for featured folk balladeer Sally Rogers, is tuning up onstage, and the mix is not quite right. Fiddler Liberty Rucker, a former employee of Mr. Eisner’s, can’t hear the rest of the band on the monitors.

“How’s that?” Mr. Eisner asks.

The musicians play a few bars.

“That’s fine,” Miss Rucker says. “I can hear it now.”

The female band launches into a few more riffs, and with a little back and forth banter, the final settings are determined. The band breaks to await the audience’s arrival, and Mr. Eisner leans back to relax – for a minute or two.

His intense face framed by a thick, black beard, the burly Mr. Eisner, 47, is looking a little weary this evening. In addition to operating the store, he has been sponsoring this venerable concert series for 15 years, and this season marks a turning point. No longer able to supply the $10,000 to $15,000 a year that the series needs to keep going, he’s looking to make the concerts more self-supporting, and that’s a tough order in today’s lean times.

“We’ll need to raise at least that much, probably more, and increase our audience size, or we’ll have to close our doors,” he says.

With arts funding cut back on the federal and local levels, there are more arts groups pursuing leaner companies with less of a desire to give than ever before. And support is particularly critical for IMT and devotees of acoustic music. Along with Alexandria’s landmark Birchmere and the lesser-known Folk Club of Reston-Herndon, the smoke-free IMT is one of few places around that features a mix of top international Celtic and folk artists in an acoustically excellent hall where serious listening, rather than serious drinking, is the order of the day.

Over the years, the series has featured many of the acoustic “greats” in their earlier days – among them Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has agreed to be an honorary board member of IMT, according to Busy Graham, current director of the institute.

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While many of these artists got their start elsewhere, the IMT series helped gain them valuable early recognition. “I’m approaching a number of other big names who’ve played here in the past because their support can attract interest from the corporate community,” Mrs. Graham says.

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The House of Musical Traditions actually got its start in Greenwich Village in 1967. First housed in a loft above the St. Mark’s Theater, the shop catered to traditional and acoustic musicians and specialized in building lap dulcimers. At about the same time, Mr. Eisner was majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland, moving on to establish Maggie’s Farm, an alternative boutique in Takoma Park.

“I liked to call it `a unique craftsperson’s place,’ he says, “but some might have called it a head shop.”

A fan of acoustic music and already familiar with the House of Musical Traditions, the entrepreneurial Mr. Eisner learned that the owners were interested in selling and decamping to California. So he purchased the store’s inventory and name and reopened it in Takoma Park at the site of the former Maggie’s Farm, eventually moving the store to its current location at 7040 Carroll Ave.

Right at home in funky, downtown Takoma Park, the shop prospered. Selling traditional, often handmade instruments to a sophisticated and demanding clientele specializing in folk, bluegrass and Celtic music, the store expanded to include sheet music, books and recordings by well-known and local artists. Mr. Eisner opened another location in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., in 1974, but that location was closed in 1983, and the store was consolidated in the present space.

The concert series started almost by accident in the early 1980s. Members of the local Irish band Celtic Thunder contacted Mr. Eisner and asked him whether there was any possibility of doing an in-store concert featuring Tony Sullivan, a banjo player from Ireland – “in four days.” Mr. Eisner agreed, putting out what publicity he could, and he was surprised by the excellent attendance on such short notice.

An informal concert series started not long afterward, and soon, it was getting too big for the shop.

“It got so that we’d have to move instruments right out to people’s cars when the acts changed,” says Mr. Eisner, and the series soon moved down the street to the old Takoma Cafe. When the restaurant closed in the late 1980s, the series – by now incorporated as a nonprofit organization – moved to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, its current home, where it now mounts some 40 concerts per year.

Local musicians such as hammered dulcimer virtuoso Maggie Sansone and Celtic harpist Sue Richards, as well as traveling internationally known artists such as Canada’s singer-songwriter Eileen McGann, have been attracted to the place, a spacious yet acoustically warm and intimate space just off busy New Hampshire Avenue. The vaulted wooden ceiling floats above an airy layer of windows in the church’s upper meeting room, and on the walls, an exhibit of paintings by local artists is rotated every month.

The chatty ambience is enhanced at concert halftime when delectable comestibles are served up by moonlighting Silver Spring bakers operating under the moniker of “Desserts First, Because Life Is Uncertain.”

“National touring artists have told us that the IMT series and our venue is their favorite place to play,” Mrs. Graham says.

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Audiences have grown over the years, according to Mrs. Graham, perhaps boosted by the recent New Age interest in Celtic and traditional music. Nonetheless, the average audience consists of regulars (who Mrs. Graham says attend about a third of the concerts each season) and a lot of people in the 40- to 50-year-old age group, primarily boomers who first became devoted to folk music in the 1960s. And the series is increasingly popular with singles.

The institute also supports “Class Acts,” a popular series of arts-in-education and community outreach programs geared primarily toward schoolchildren.

A highlight of the season – and the institute’s biggest event in attendance – is the annual holiday family concert with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Special guests in past years have included the likes of Pete Seeger, Trout Fishing in America and Bill Harley. This year’s concert, the series’s 11th, will be held at Montgomery Blair High School on Dec. 1 and will feature Tom Chapin, an award-winning children’s recording artist and brother of the late folk artist Harry Chapin.

***** WHAT: Upcoming concerts include the Kennedys, with acoustic guitar and vocals, tomorrow; Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir performing Russian, Irish and original tunes on Friday; and an evening of Celtic harp with Sue Richards, Jane Valencia and Debra Knodel next Sunday at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Ave. (at Oaklawn Drive), Silver Spring

WHEN: All times 8 p.m. unless otherwise noted

TICKETS: $8-15. Discounts available. Students under 14 half-price

PHONE: 301/588-7525. Tickets also on sale at the House of Musical Traditions, 7040 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

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