By J. Michael Kearsey
On Sundays he may say mass at St. Philip Neri Catholic church, but on Wednesdays he leads a rousing sing-a-long version of the Beatles’ “Obla-di Obla-da,” at Eugenio’s at SE 36th and Division St. Father William Edens is the Parochial Vicar for the church, and plays ukulele while he sings at Pearly’s Open Mic, a Eugenios’ institution since 2010.
The man in charge of the music is Steven ‘Pearly’ Hettum who made a return to the helm in June after reconstructive foot surgery. ‘Father Bill’ finished his set and rushed to see Hettum to offer good luck in recovery, as did many people on this warm summer night.
With a large oil painting of a cross-legged John Lennon playing acoustic guitar behind the performers, this club has the best vibe of any establishment for blocks through the condo-canyons of the new Division St. Obscure brand guitars hang beside pictures of Greta Garbo, the Rat Pack and our own Billy Rancher on an 80’s magazine cover.
Open mic nights are often maligned, but on this night the 18 slots start at 7 pm, with admiration and co-operation the norm for both musicians and audience. Father Bill is followed by an acoustic duo; a keyboardist who sings along with his own tracks; a pianist growling like Tom Waits and then Pearly himself, along with British ex pat, Jerry McCammick, playing John Prine and Rolling Stones songs to the crowds’ delight.
As club owner, Eugene Gray notes with Bohemian pride: “This isn’t like anywhere on this street. We have 50 folks in the club and no one is staring at a cellphone. They are listening or engaging in real conversation face to face. We are an oasis from the madness and the cluster nearby. We are community, from 8 to 80, cryptic or crazy. All are welcome and on Wednesday nights, everyone is a star!” (This may be part of the manifesto hanging by the stage, but that one is written in Sanskrit.)
Gray and Hettum have known each other for many years. Hettum, now known for his songwriting and his three CD’s, was once the manager and producer of Billy Rancher and the Unreal Godz, who cut a Rock’n’Roll swath through the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s.
Gray is a musician as well, playing guitar with the Ultronz, Church of Surf and his current trio, the Tempo Beats. There has always been music in the club since its opening in 2002. Even with noise conflicts in the neighborhood, many of Portland’s finest have played here: Sneakin’ Out, Jon Koonce, Lenny Rancher and there was even a Confidentials reunion. Chris Newman of Napalm Beach fame drew the club’s iconic sandwich board out front.
It is Pearly’s Open Mic that has run the longest, though, with 259 Wednesdays and counting. Hettum returned from Southern Oregon in 2010 with a new CD, but nowhere to play. “I became reacquainted with Eugene Gray at that time and he offered me Wednesday nights and that’s where the open mic began. It has become a privilege to play here,” he says with satisfaction. “From classical harpists to blues harp players, saxophones, trumpets, from Celtic music to acoustic metal, there are talented people, seasoned and aspiring, and I try to give everyone their 15 minutes of fame.”
Eugenio’s menu offers salads, pasta and thin-crust pizzas all made from scratch, along with a short list of tap beer, a cooler full of odd cans and bottles, fun cocktails and a good wine list. While troubadours sing and play on stage, there are a handful out on the sidewalk patio tuning up, trading songs and discussing politics, philosophy and the changes to the neighborhood.
The room fills to a shoulder-to-shoulder capacity. Annie Dang’s Quartet has arrived to squeeze in a short set of originals and “Late Night Larry” wraps up the festivities with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. Hettum is called back to the stage to finish the night with his song, “Party By Myself,” written during his days with Billy Rancher. The song has become a perennial closer with a packed stage of extra singers, players rambling through tempos and a cappella sections that fill the room and the street.
Father Bill has left, guitars are packed up and Hettum is shaking hands, exchanging hugs with friends and supporters. The musicians all talk about who may be around next week, with Oregon Country Fair on its way and the only noise conflicts are laughter and applause from the weary patrons who just got to hear the best free Open Mic in town.