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Austin Classical Guitar Society fills Cactus Cafe stage

Luke Quinton

On one of Austin's most revered songwriter's stages, the ghosts are speaking to classical guitarists these days, nudging them into a different kind of storytelling.

The Cactus Cafe and the Austin Classical Guitar Society formed a partnership this spring to host some of Austin's finest classical guitarists in front of the Cactus' red velvet backdrop one evening a month.

"It's got so much history, you feel part of that," says guitarist and instructor Kim Perlak. When you're on this stage, it changes the way you play. "You feel the spirit," she says.

And the audience evidently does, too. Perlak, a Yale- and University of Texas-trained musician, just has moved through a set of shimmering, moody Americana. A number of the works evoke the feeling of small towns, from California and New England to a haunting slide guitar inspired by Hawaii.

None of her songs features lyrics, of course, yet we seem to feel each one intimately, in part because the Cactus is so small that guitarists can't help but engage with the crowd. It would be awkward not to.

Perlak's set was a sort of songwriter's circle - just without the lyrics.

One Portland, Ore., composer was eager to meet Perlak in person before he wrote her commission. He happened to be a runner. "Maybe I'll come down there and run the Austin Marathon, and then we can have dinner," he said. He did, she cheered him on, then had him over for supper, and that's how her next song was born.

Perlak's playing already conjures up more sensations than one usually expects, but because she chose mostly recent pieces by friends and mentors, we are rewarded with the insight behind the tunes. And she has stories about them all.

Perlak favors the work of her former teacher, Ben Verdery, of Yale, whose work is lush with poignant melodies and moments of intricacy. For one song, dedicated to Verdery's late brother, Perlak recalled spending time in the brother's house, a home built, to the letter, from descriptions in a John Steinbeck novel.

Throughout her thoughtful, enchanting set, Perlak's vivid stories made the abstract slightly more concrete.

Perlak explains that Verdery's rocking tribute to famed guitarist Leo Kottke, called "Milwaukee," is based on Kottke's "Machine #2."

"Ben calls it a tribute. Leo calls it a rip-off," she quips.

Guitar comes to Cactus

"We're hitting on all cylinders," says Michael Fields, president of the guitar society's board. After hosting last summer's conference of the Guitar Foundation of America, a landmark for the guitar society, the Cactus series is another expansion of the group's mission and profile. The goal, he says, is "lots of open doors for people to come." And at $5, this door is wide open.

The event is friendly, soothing and informal, and as Fields says, gesturing toward a couple holding hands, "It's a cheap date."

And quite stylish. It's no stretch to envision yourself sitting in a Spanish cafe in some old black-and-white film.

The crowd is gathered around tables, with wine, a Shiner or some water. They're chatting, waiting for the set to begin. It's a mixed group, mostly middle-aged with a scattering of students. There are couples and quartets. Later, a pack of young guitarists arrives and settles in the back, by the bar.

"They drink, but they're quiet," bartender Susan Svedeman says of the audience. "They seem very relaxed. Also, they're very tidy." High praise, indeed.

It is a civilized room, a solemn space by the standard of most bars. The evening begins when the house lights dim and Michael Gratovich, opening for Perlak, enters from the stage door outside and steps up to tune his guitar.

He starts with the stunning "Songe Capricorne" by Roland Dyens, and has such a sweet touch, bending his fingers from cords back into delicate harmonies, up and down the guitar neck. The hum of the bar fridge is the only other sound.

Jeff Sauers of Orlando, Fla., found his way to the Cactus via the Lonely Planet travel guide, along with his wife and in-laws. "Austin's just one of those places you never hear anything bad about," he says.

They were entertained by Gratovich's set. "I've never seen fingers move like that," Sauers says.

"It's nice to break out of that straitjacket, furrowed-brow approach to classical music," Gratovich says at intermission. And the UT senior should know. Both of his parents are veterans of Austin's classical music community. His father, Eugene Gratovich, has played violin for the Austin Symphony for the past 24 years, and is now associate concertmaster, while his mother, Sylvia Golmon, is the symphony's principal pianist and keyboardist.

One of Perlak's pieces, accompanied by flugelhorn, was a little ragged, and Gratovich had to pause in mid-Bach at one point to retrace his steps, but these issues were mostly endearing.

The Cactus is such a comfortable room, brimming with character, that it's the ideal testing ground for both the strange and beautiful.