Divas Convene at Mike’s Barn
If we told you that a leisurely drive down a dark road in Elyria would eventually land you at a place called “Mike’s Barn” — a place where a man named “Mike” has turned an old barn into a veritable pleasure dome of blues ballads and brewskies, hot beats and handsome women — would you believe us?
Would it convince you further if you knew Mike has been hosting musical acts there since 1994, amassing a cult following in the process, all because he wanted musicians to play on his collection of 30 Hammond organs?
We know it exists. We were there. We have seen Mike, we have seen the Barn, and they were good.
Our adventure began when we heard of a show called “The Broad Side of the Barn,” an evening of musical performances featuring some of the Cleveland area’s best female vocalists.
We pulled in a couple of miles from Route 20 (we’re not allowed to disclose the exact location), and the small group of people taking tickets along with the glowing lights coming from inside the barn assured us we were at the right place.
This was the kind of place whose reputation gets around by word of mouth alone — a hidden away clubhouse for lovers of great music and good times.
We parked the car in a field out back and we headed toward the barn; a black lab jogged ahead with the boy who had helped us find parking.
There were a number of teens idling out back, alternately goofing off and cooking hamburgers on a large grill for the crowd standing around outside.
Music drifted around the field as Kim Byron, a woman with long, curly red hair and a leather jacket finished up her set. She was backed by The Reid Project, a truly funky R&B band from the East Side of Cleveland, a band so tightly in the pocket with good-smiling, hip soul grooves and tasty horn licks that it seemed a hidden treasure oddly and magically out of time and place in this barn in Elyria. We soon discovered that we were in for a real treat, because The Reid Project backed up several more vocalists that night.
We took a seat toward the open back entrance of the barn. After Byron finished her set, a woman came up on stage.
“There are no cocktail waitresses here,” she said. “I am going to scold you now for leaving your bottle caps around.” She went on to point out that rather than leave the bottle caps on the ground, they should be added to the bottle cap mosaic at the threshold of the barn.
After the short reprimand, The Reid Project took the stage again, this time with the singer Charlita, who was an obvious local favorite of the crowd.
Donning stilettos and a pair of brown-framed glasses, she smiled at the audience and introduced the blues “Black Drawers,” laughing.
“I hope y’all are wearing your black drawers, ’cause that’s a special commodity,” she said.
The Reid Project made a lot of singers sound good that night, but Charlita’s style was a seamless match. She kicked when they kicked, and the result got people out of their seats.
She finished to a round of spirited applause and cries for more. Charlita thanked the audience and her husband, then started to joke about what a nuisance her husband could be with the laundry at times.
“I’d just like to say,” she added with extra sass, “you can have my husband, but don’t mess with my man,” and launched into a song detailing the dynamics of that statement.
After Charlita, there was a brief intermission and the woman who scolded us about the bottle caps took the mic again to introduce the next singer, Ms. Butterscotch.
“You won’t believe it till you see it, this woman’s 60 years old — she’s an inspiration to all of us.”
That was definitely the truth. Strutting around on stage (this woman doesn’t walk anywhere), Ms. Butterscotch sang the blues with a deep, gritty voice that was definitely two shots of scotch for each slice of butter.
Ms. Butterscotch carried herself with a powerful irreverence, shaking her hips better than anyone else in the joint. She plowed through a set of time-honored blues and R&B numbers without a single moment’s hesitation.
She brought down the house with verse after verse of roaring blues choruses such as, “What did the rooster say to the duck? You ain’t too good lookin’, but you sure know how to fuck.”
Ms. Butterscotch schooled the audience, thrusting her pelvis for emphasis. Looking around the Barn, there was not a soul in sight that was not completely won over by her spirited, vivacious performance.
Before she closed her set, Ms. Butterscotch announced she was going to sing a ballad by Billie Holiday, “In order for you to know that I’m not a complete wild one,” she said, and moved into an incredibly moving cover of “God Bless the Child.”
She didn’t just sing — she felt the song, each note wrought with the tender emotion of an old soul. As she finished she looked out over the audience, her eyes gleaming.
“I was almost gonna cry but I don’t want you seeing me up here looking ugly,” she said, smiling.
Christine Jackson, a singer-songwriter who plays both guitar and trumpet, brought her country-fied blues to the stage next. She was backed by the second band of the evening, The Bad Boys of Blues, a group from the West Side of Cleveland that rocked the night home.
Jackson played all original work. Her voice was at times so staggeringly present in volume and unabashed intensity that all one could do was stare in disbelief at her slim frame producing that huge sound on stage. She shaped the sounds with her slightly smirking mouth, producing melodies that curled their way into the ear.
Up next, singer Becky Boyd’s set was in the tricky position of making a transition from Jackson’s electric-folk blues to the jazz and swing that ended the night. Boyd meandered through some pop covers with Van Morrison-esque vocals and then moved into stock arrangements of the standards “Summertime” and “Take the A Train,” which seemed a little harried, but proved that Boyd could sing some blues, too.
We had waited all night, braved back roads and bottle caps, to hear Ki Allen, the queen of jazz singers in Cleveland, and it was worth it. Her voice was sweet, smooth, and supple, her taste was impeccable, and she really kept the band on their toes.
Her interpretation of the torch song “Cry Me a River” was heart-wrenching and sincere, and featured a great solo from trumpeter Benny Mostella. Another nice choice was a cover of Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk,” which eased into a mixture of hip hop and acid jazz grooves.
Bassist Mike Barrick played a couple of totally burning solos during Allen’s set, racing up and down the neck of his bass with absurd facility, sending the musicians in the audience reeling. Allen closed out her set and the night with a crisp, quick version of Ellington’s “Cottontail,” which featured Bad Boys drummer Jim Wall and some intense scatting between her vocals and Barrick’s bass.
These are the things you have to look forward to if you take that step and venture beyond Oberlin’s safe harbor into that great unknown, Elyria. With a little extra hunting, you may even stumble across another Mike’s Barn around a different byway somewhere. Maybe we’ll see you there.
For more information about Mike’s Barn, go to www.mikesbarn.com.