The crowd trickles in with the twilight: beret-clad folkies, white-haired fellows with bolo ties and fiddles, a festive party lugging a catered dinner of pate, croissants, Champagne and creme brule.
By 7:30 p.m., on the last Friday of each month, an audience of about 200 has gathered at The Livery, the renovated stable and carriage house in downtown Ventura.
For the next 4 hours, strains of everything from bluegrass to boogie-woogie bounce off the red brick walls and into the crowded courtyard.
"This town needs more places with this kind of wholesome atmosphere," said Phyllis Dorsey, a Ventura resident who enthused over last month's bluegrass shindig. "It's like a coffeehouse from the '60s. It's very down-to-earth."
Tomorrow, the festivities begin with Jonathan (Mako) Sharkey's honky-tonk piano music. Then, the Latin salsa jazz rhythms of the Estrada Brothers hold sway. The Halloween bash closes with Those Darn Guys, a kind of reggae duo composed of Jeff Evans, a mandolin player who is also in a band called Cahoots, and Greg Harrison on banjo and guitar.
The monthly evenings of acoustic music--which are supplemented by poetry readings--are sponsored by the Ventura Arts Council, a nonprofit group funded by municipal and private grants.
Fans say the "Old Livery Coffeehouse Concerts" bring a breath of fresh air into downtown Ventura night life and offer patrons an opportunity to mingle and meet neighbors far from the madding crowd of office parks and smoky bars.
"People are interested in finding out who their neighbors are, instead of working 9 to 5 and going home at night and turning on the TV," said Oscar James, a waiter and musician who lives three blocks away.
The "coffeehouses" unfold in the erstwhile Palm Street livery, where in the 1870s, blacksmiths shod horses and repaired carriages amid bales of hay and ringing anvils.
Collection of Shops
Today, the livery is a Ventura historic landmark with a handful of specialty shops. Inside the renovated building are re-creations of the original woodworking and glass etching. Visitors can stroll down cobblestone walkways, past antique lampposts, ceiling fans and flower boxes. The hills behind downtown Ventura rise into the night, as silhouetted Victorian houses and palm trees complete the backdrop.
Inspiration for the down-home coffeehouse concerts came from four young Venturans who yearned for a little bohemia along the beach, a place where both young and old could unwind to grass-roots music.
"We wanted a warm environment where people could come together--artists, poets and musicians," said Beth Nuzback, one of the organizers.
On coffeehouse nights, patrons can meander into Livery News and Books or cruise through the Ventura Arts Council Gallery, which has rotating shows of West Coast artists.
News of the event has spread through word of mouth, musicians' networks, flyers and local newspapers. The monthly gatherings draw 150 to 300 people, organizers said. A $2 donation goes to pay the bands. Friday's concert is the season's last, but the coffeehouses are slated to resume next spring.