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CLUBS in and around Orange County

Solo Decaf

Tired of coffeehouse chatter, Johnny Jones created a quieter venue.

March 05, 1998|MELISSA PERLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — It sounds like the same old song: A young folk musician waves a fond farewell to his East Coast home and sets off toward sunny California with nothing but a guitar and a burning desire to make a name for himself.

"After a couple months here, I felt homesick and unhappy, and I wasn't sure why," said Johnny Jones, 31, who moved from Greenwich Village, N.Y., to Long Beach a few years ago.

"The local promoters and all the musicians I've met, everyone's been so good to me. It's not like I wasn't doing well, but something was missing.

"Then it came to me that the reason I missed Greenwich so much was that, there, there are so many places for songwriters and poets to go to get a sense of community and support," he said. "That's part of what inspires us to keep doing what we do."

Last fall, Jones was on the verge of closing the curtain on Long Beach and heading home. Instead, he decided to stay and help foster the sort of communal spirit and infectious enthusiasm that he had been missing here.

"There are coffeehouses where poets can read and musicians can play, but everyone's always yapping and chattering, and you get the feeling no one's really listening," Jones said. "It's a tragedy, because there are so many awe-inspiring musicians in this town who really need to be heard."

Thus was born Overhead Projector, where singer-songwriters can play new songs in a stripped-down setting before attentive listeners. Chris Walters, manager of Jillian's nightclub and an admirer of Jones' music, was eager to host the event weekly when Jones approached him with the idea.

Jillian's used to be a bank, and given its sheer vastness and colossally high ceilings, it might not seem like an obvious venue for an intimate gathering. But Jones has created a warm, welcoming atmosphere for his fellow musicians: Lighting remains unusually low throughout the show, jewel-toned pillows are scattered about the stage, and clusters of candles create a cozy glow.

Judging by the large, loyal following that has developed since the series began and the excitement of the participants, he has succeeded.

Jones opens every show with a few soul-baring songs of his own, setting the tone, then emceeing the rest of the show, which usually wraps about midnight.

After Jones' set, there is typically one other featured singer-songwriter--sometimes two--from a Long Beach band who wants a break from the group format. Brent Bixby from 12 Hour Mary has played, as have Robert Deeble from Days Like This and Chris Hanlin from Bourbon Jones.

Jones has imposed a few rules. Musicians must play only original material. Only one accompanying musician is allowed onstage with a songwriter. Jones also encourages guests to play around with new, unfinished songs so the audience can witness the creative process.

After the featured performer, an open-mike session begins. So far, most of the audience members are also musicians who come to participate and root for their friends.

An inexperienced performer might think getting onstage with more seasoned musicians is daunting, but Jones and his friends try to make everyone feel at home.

In spirit, Overhead Projector is not unlike Mike Martt's Song Shop, which premiered recently at the Blue Cafe nearby. Still, there are some significant distinctions.

Jones takes the idea of an informal jam one step further by including the open-mike sessions, and the featured songwriters tend to be less known than those who take part in the Song Shop. Then there is the absence of a cover charge, and with $2 beer and wine specials all night, Overhead Projector can make for a cheap night out.

"The response has been just incredible," Walters said. "Both the musicians and the audience have a great time. 'Open mike' always makes me skeptical but, wow, do we get some amazing talent in here. I'm mesmerized every single week.

"I'm so glad Johnny convinced me not to charge a cover, and the musicians themselves get paid squat," he said. "But this way, it's all about the music, not money. Our motives are totally pure, and that's why it works."

BE THERE

Overhead Projector at Jillian's, 110 Pine Ave., Long Beach. 9 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays. No cover. (562) 436-1251.

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