February 28, 2007

ABC Cafe: More Than Just Sunday Brunch

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For the past few decades, one of the most talked about places for weekend brunch has been the ABC Café. Located near the corner of Stewart Ave. and Buffalo St., it is accessible to most Collegetown residents.

What many Sunday morning aficionados don’t know is that the music doesn’t end with the performances that the Café features on weekend afternoons. In fact, the ABC Café is one of the most diverse and consistent — not to mention cheap — venues in the city of Ithaca, while its proximity makes live music only a short walk away.

One of ABC’s longest-running, and probably best-known, gigs is its weekly open jazz nights. Every Thursday, Neal Massa and his trio kick off the night with a few standards, tightly performed and skillfully improvised. While most, if not all, of the musicians who join the performance throughout the course of the night are excellent performers, Massa is particularly impressive on keyboards.

In a fashion typical of those who have mastered anything, he makes switching genres, soloing and directing the progress of a song without any hands look easy. The Thursday jazz jam session is also a good place to catch passionate jazz professor Paul Merrill and the students he conducts in the many Cornell improvisatory ensembles.

Besides these long-standing events, the ABC Café provides a friendly venue for local and nationally touring folk acts. Most often, the performers come with their guitar, voice and not much else, so if you’re looking for a show that involves dancing, getting drunk or getting wild in any way, you probably won’t find it here — but once in awhile, some truly fantastic music comes through.

Just last week, Kimya Dawson, best known for her work with the infamous Moldy Peaches, backing up Ben Kweller and Third Eye Blind, treated a small audience to a memorable performance.

Part of a growing, often difficult to describe, genre called anti-folk, Dawson has a lengthy discography of homegrown records including 2004’s Hidden Vagenda. Dawson has a sweet and pure voice and a strumming guitar to match — two features that often belie the darker connotations of her lyrics. A self-proclaimed student of Satanism and the occult, Dawson sings about raising the dead, stealing children and burning in Hell.

Come to think of it, Dawson’s weird take on folk music is the perfect example of what the ABC can offer in its best moments. With a full menu of vegan options that are sometimes worth the steep price (and sometimes not), the ABC Café is home to Ithaca’s strangest — and, of course, most interesting — characters.

Most of the time, the faces there are enough to gaze at while you pretend to do some reading, and it’s always a great place to meet someone for coffee or a meal.

And when all else fails, stick around long enough and someone with a guitar is bound to walk in and want to do nothing more than sing to you.