How long has it been since you ventured down those eerie Franklin Street steps, like the entryway into a scene from Dickens, to hang out at The Cave? In my humble opinion there's no better venue in the Triangle for jazzy blues. It's a small enough space that even a moderate gathering of listeners can feel like a crowd, and the barrel-shaped structure gives you the feeling that you're sitting inside one of the speakers. Cave co-proprietor Mr. Mouse is doing Chapel Hill's oldest tavern proud. He takes the bar's storied past very seriously, and yet he works hard to keep the music varied and cutting edge. Along with regular weekend shows, most weeknights The Cave offers not one band, but two.Last Wednesday evening, local five-piece jazz, blues, folk band Triple Fret took the festively decorated stage for the early show. From the first funky conga beats of "Can't Stand the Rain," vocalist Mariana Johnson was on. With her full voice and sure stage presence, she can ride a song, making it walk, trot, canter, then gallop to the verge of abandon, before pulling back on the reins. Once Rob Rabb cranked up his blues harp and drummer Travis Goodwin started smacking the skins, Triple Fret hit the floor running. Despite minor sound problems--the bane of every musician--by the end of the opening tune the midweek crowd was tapping along and bobbing their heads.
Later, things quieted to a hush when Mariana lifted up Randy California's soulful lament for both the human plight and the sad fate of our planet, "Nature's Way." In lesser hands, this song could have become maudlin, but the Fret handled it gently, like you might hold someone who's hurting, on the brink of tears. It's an odd and unforgettable experience when, in a smoky bar full of beer-drinking, regular folks, you catch a glimpse of the mystery of being alive. Last time I checked, that's what the blues were all about--mourning as a means of survival.
After raising the roof a time or two (admittedly not that difficult a task in the low-ceilinged Cave), they kicked way back on "Tupelo Honey," the boys all but disappearing so that Mariana's plaintive keen could squeeze every ounce of sweetness from Van Morrison's mystical tune. You know you're in the presence of true talent when music reaches right in and touches you where you live. By the end of the song I was transported for a delicious moment into the throes of bittersweet love, feeling its sting, tasting the ambrosia: "Just like honey, baby, from the bees."
But there's no room for sadness when Triple Fret rocks. The first set ended with a rowdy rendition of "You Need to Be With Me," and Cave-man Mouse shouted from behind the bar, "I love that song!" The Fret can play gentle, and they can play rough. The evening's finest moment, and a surprise indeed, was easy to overlook. Amid an extended jam on "Midnight Rider," Mike Babyak's weeping guitar led the band through a touching tribute to the coolest Beatle of them all, George Harrison. Like a lonely cowboy emerging from a dust storm, only to disappear again, "Within You Without You" drifted through The Cave like some ethereal ghost rider.
When the Fret slipped back into The Allman Brothers' ode to determination, to carrying on no matter what comes, the aural gems Babyak plucked from his Strat evoked the towering spirit of Duane Allman, and we were granted a glimpse of what the house band will sound like once we all get to Nirvana.