An eager crowd of music lovers packed every chair, the edge of the stage, the aisles and the tiny foyer of the Marine Room Tavern this past Tuesday. As the evening progressed, the party spilled into the street even as some patrons doubled up on bar stools. They included under-age fans sipping Cokes, seniors nursing wine and others snacking on food brought in, all to bid a bittersweet farewell to Beth Fitchet Wood and the Songwriter’s Showcase.
An institution for more than eight years, the standing Tuesday night gig featured emerging talent and veteran musician-writers out of the mainstream, and at times older musicians re-entering the scene after retirement or a hiatus. “It wasn’t a place for anyone to be critical but one for performers to do a set and own the stage for half an hour,” explained Fitchet Wood, a longtime resident.
The format allowed for musicians who could display instant polish or take longer to connect with the audience. There never was a cover charge, the audience could either buy drinks or bring in food and drinks from outside and the host’s home-baked cookies were passed around. “It provided a quieter, family like atmosphere, even if the Marine Room is usually anything but quiet,” she said.
Laguna Beach’s mayor, Kelly Boyd, and his late brother Bo, who owned and operated the Marine Room for 25 years, cultivated the bar’s communal watering-hole vibe, hosting election night parties, wakes, fundraisers and a range of live music. Last year, Boyd sold the business to another local, Chris Keller, who also operates Big Fish restaurant and revived Casa Del Camino hotel and its popular rooftop bar and restaurant.
Both Fitchet Wood and Keller declare their parting is amicable. Even so, Keller is intent on wooing dancing, drinking customers who relish raucous bands such as the long-running Missiles of October rather than patrons intent on soaking up Fitchet Wood’s lyric-centered sets in coffee-house quiet.
“Beth will be missed,” said Keller. Even so, he expressed hope for future engagements. “There always will be an open door,” he said.
Robby Boyd, Bo’s son, continues to tend the 34-seat bar. Though he always appreciated music, he credits Fitchet Wood with turning him into a professional musician four years ago. “I have always gotten a lot of inspiration from Tuesdays,” he said. Now he plays guitar, six-string banjo, harmonica, percussion and washboard as a member of The Dupp Brothers, another regular Marine Room act.
“Your music moves along rapidly when you play with other people,” he remarked. Beth’s husband, composer and musician Steve Wood, frequently has sat in playing accordion with the Dupps.
“With Beth it’s all about the art of music. She has the ability to find first rate artists that are under-represented and she is one of the few singers that gets an audience to shut up and listen,” said Clay Berryhill, a regular who describes the music scene as part of Laguna’s artistic DNA. “I’ve followed both Beth and Steve since the 1970s,” he added.
The change surprised Mayor Boyd. “I did not know the showcase had ended, but I am saddened that it did. Beth did not only introduce new music and musicians but a new atmosphere at the bar,” he said. “She had brought so many, sometimes totally new people who would travel in from as far as Tennessee and introduced us to music many of us had never even heard before.”
Steve Wood’s take is philosophical: “It’s disappointing but not personal. Chris is trying to do something that has gotten more complicated and he has to go with his vision. While everyone paid less attention to the largest common denominator in the past, he has to cast a wider net to make the business successful,” he said.
The coffee-house atmosphere of intent patrons was mostly set aside during Fitchet Wood’s poignant solo performance and a raucous one accompanied by The Girls, Sue Bredice and Carolyn Miller, along with Steve Wood on keyboard. Also performing were Mark Turnbull, Richard Stekol, and Bob Hawkins, who with Steve and Beth Wood are band members of Honk and The Snacks, respectively.
Costa Mesa resident Laure Reed described feeling grief over the finale. “I’ve played with Beth about 10 times and I am bummed, really, really sad. Beth offered a unique forum that was all about the performers and the music, the art,” she said.
Meanwhile, Fitchet Wood as a solo act and The Snacks have been playing the Sawdust Festival. “I’ve had a lot of people approach me about starting the showcase again. For now, we are going to take a couple of months off to travel and think about what comes next,” she said.
Check out Fichet Wood’s website www.bethfichetwood.com