Hear my song
Paul KULAK stands beneath the stars that decorate the ceiling. Stuffed animals peer down from a bookcase on the wall. When he first saw this place four years ago, it was an empty shell, 850 square feet for $500 a month. As he entered, he noticed a nest with baby doves above the front door, a good omen.
He filled the place with odds and ends, creating a mixture of juke joint, garage and Grandma’s house, where one could pull a book off the shelf, grab a snack from the kitchen, flop down and listen to acoustical music beneath shimmering stars. It was his paradise.
Quilts and chairs also hang from the ceiling. There’s a canopied bed to relax on. Old album jackets (Janis Joplin, Lefty Frizzell, Nancy Sinatra) hang on the wall along with a Rawlings softball glove, an electric guitar and newspaper clippings about volunteerism.
“When you go to Grandma’s house, you don’t get hit by a door charge,” says Kulak, “and waitresses don’t come around selling drinks.”
And that is why there is no cover charge at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood. An old paint can is passed around for donations. Musicians, most of them singer-songwriters, perform for free. There are refreshments in back, available on the honor system.
Six cameras send performances out live over the World Wide Web, allowing viewers all over the planet to watch live or archived shows from this tiny nook. For free.
From a music perspective, there is a sense of sanctity about the Woodshed. From a business perspective, there is something wrong with the picture; and that is why Kulak, 43, is always broke, and why the Woodshed is always on the brink of closure. In fact, the venue will go dark on Tuesday and Wednesday nights as of Nov. 25.
Not long ago, one of the shed’s mainstays, Freebo, who recorded and performed with Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and now writes his own songs, helped raise money for the place where he played every Tuesday night for nearly three years. For free.
“I love the place,” he says. “There are no distractions, no alcohol. It’s truly about the music, which is how we all got started in this business.”
Although Freebo has discontinued his Tuesday night performances in order to do more touring, he and the Woodshed are, in ways, inseparable. How many places are there in the world, he says, where you can play the music you want to play, invite your friends (and their dogs) and tell people anywhere in the world they can see the show live via the Internet?
It is the Webcast concept that motivates Kulak to endure. An archive of performances is available, so people can see a show whenever they want. It’s a way for any performer to have a worldwide audience, a way for music to be shared. And that, says Kulak, is the whole point.
“I remember one time a few months after we opened, and I was in back laying on a couch nodding off, and I thought, ‘All right, I can die now. I’ve done something I can be proud of.’ But it was never about me. I wanted there to be a spirit of collaboration at the Woodshed.”
And, predictably, what the Woodshed seems to need at the end of each month is money. The bucket brings in about $3,500 a month, Kulak says. Expenses run about $5,000, so he makes up the difference through a business he owns renting editing equipment.
He’s not one to ask for help. Making changes in his “labor of love” for the sake of money seems contrary to the spirit of the Woodshed, he says. What he seeks is a sharing of the costs in the same way the music is shared.
“I wanted people to participate in this, and $2 in the bucket isn’t participating,” he says. “It’s just disappointing that people don’t see the value of someplace like this.”
There has been magic at the Woodshed. One never knows who will walk through the door. Not long ago, it was songwriter Jack Tempchin, whose songs include “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “The Girl From Yesterday” recorded by the Eagles.
He introduced Kulak to Guitar Shorty and Deacon Jones. Guitar Shorty played with Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, Guitar Slim, Big Joe Turner and Little Richard. Jones was bandleader for John Lee Hooker for more than 18 years. They performed at the Woodshed on a recent Friday night.
“They played like they were playing in front of 10,000 people,” says Kulak. “Moments like that put a lot of energy back into my heart.” The problem was, only 25 people showed up to hear them.
Those who perform at the Woodshed are largely artists who are not as well known as the people they have played with or those for whom they have written songs. One night it might be Jeffrey Steele, whose songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes and Randy Travis; or Shane Fontayne, who has played with Bruce Springsteen, Lone Justice and Peter Gabriel. The next night it might be Ragtime Ruby Fradkin, 13, performing Scott Joplin tunes with Freebo on tuba. On Mondays, there’s an open mike.
It has been a grand experiment, says Kulak, but he wonders how much longer it can continue. The more people tune in to the Webcasts, he says, the more it costs. Each viewer is like someone making a collect call. Someone donated an air-conditioning system to the Woodshed, but Kulak doesn’t have the money to update the electrical wiring to have it installed.
“Someday, I’ll have to grow up, I guess,” he says. “But I just can’t let go of this place.”
Kulak tried letting go a couple years ago. He took off for two months and announced that the “shed was dead.”
It was a hobby that got out of hand, he told patrons in an e-mail. It got too serious, he wrote, too much like a business. “He asked that people not try to reach him. He wanted to be alone.
“I would rather dwell on all the wonderful memories and the good times we shared together,” Kulak wrote. “We need to give thanks for our heaven’s blessings as they come into our lives and have the strength and dignity to let go.”
But people wouldn’t allow the shed to die. Volunteers stepped forward. “Go ahead and go. We’ll keep the place going for you,” they said.
And the Woodshed survived. When Kulak returned, someone came to him with the idea of Webcasts, and that has been his fuel and focus since.
No matter how many times he thinks about it, it isn’t easy to give up on something you believe in, he says.
Most nights, Kulak stays in back of the woodshed monitoring the Webcasts. Volunteers work the cameras. He isn’t one for standing before an audience or even socializing. He would rather stay busy.
At night, when the bucket is emptied and everyone leaves, Kulak gets the place in order, ready for the next day.
Duane Noriyuki can be contacted at
Where: 5230 1/2 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood
When: Most nights, 8-11 p.m.; Mondays open mike; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting Nov. 25.
Web performances: Nightly, 8-11 p.m. at www.kulakswoodshed.com
Info: (818) 766-9913 or the Web site
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