The Blind Café

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Blind Café returns to Boulder for an eye-opening performance in the dark

:: The Blind Café::
:: St. John’s Church (Boulder) ::
:: July 14-16 ::

By Brian F. Johnson

Countless performers have commented on Boulder’s collective ability to be a good listening crowd when we want to be. In fact, much of Colorado’s crowds treat certain concert moments with reverence from attentive ears, hushed lips and perked ears. But no matter how good a listening crowd is, it’s doubtful that any are as mindful as the attendees of The Blind Café, which will return to Boulder for its fifth installment this month.

The thing that sets the crowd at The Blind Café apart from other crowds, is that audience members have little choice but to listen — they can’t look to see what’s happening on stage, or around them because the entire performance, and the entire night, including dinner, happens in a 100 percent pitch-black room.

It’s a concept thought up or, more accurately, borrowed, by local musician and Naropa graduate Brian “Rosh” Rocheleau, who years ago, quite literally stumbled into a similar event in Reykjavik, Iceland.

“I set up these cross cultural exchange house concerts all across Iceland and Norway, and actually Holland and Ireland,” said Rosh in a recent interview with The Marquee. “While I was on tour performing, I happened to walk into a café in the dark in Reykjavik, Iceland. There was this Icelandic girl and she had this table with these laminated cards with brail on them with Icelandic words. She gave me a cane and sent me down this long dark hallway and closed the door behind me. I got to the end of the hallway, and I could hardly see anything, but I opened up this door and then I definitely couldn’t see anything. There was that immediate feeling of — like a bit of a shock, almost like jumping into cold water. So I was like, ‘Alright, what do blind folks do? They have their cane.’ So I start walking into the café, and I bump into a table. There are obviously some people at it. I’m like, ‘Are there any extra chairs?’ They’re like, ‘We don’t know.’ And I was like, ‘Good point.’ Everyone was chatting in Icelandic so it was a little confusing. There were dishes clanking everywhere, but I couldn’t see anything, like I couldn’t even see my hands. Finally I found a chair and I sat down. I just thought it was an amazing experience.”

A few years went by and Rosh, now back in Boulder, began to realize the brilliance of a performance in the dark, and what it would mean for audience members to sit — completely void of visual stimulus — and just listen. He started to ask, “How can I find an authentic place for my art to be shared in a way that I really care about and have it be bigger than just my art?”

Beyond that question, Rosh began to ask if there was a way to incorporate members of the blind community into the show, and use the event as a way to raise awareness of blindness, without seeming like a pushy sighted person trying to exploit that community.

Enter Gerry Leary.

Leary is the owner and master roaster of The Unseen Bean in Boulder. Blind since birth, Leary was formerly a car mechanic for 30 years in the Boulder area.

Rosh had pitched the idea of a Blind Café to a local organization for the blind, which had said collectively that they were nervous the experience would frighten sighted people about the blind. But Leary approached Rosh after the meeting and said, “Don’t worry about them. They’re just like sighted people… Let’s do this anyway.”

In 2010, the first Blind Café sold out two nights at the Wesley Chapel across from Folsom Stadium. Since then, Rosh has taken the concept to other cities and has hosted three in Portland, Ore., one in Austin, Texas (with another scheduled for later this summer), and this month the fifth Boulder presentation of The Blind Café will mark the tenth overall production for the group.

Rosh, who is accompanied by his band One Eye Glass Broken during each Café said that there was an adjustment to learning to play in the dark, and cello player Phil Norman, who is also the Master of Darkness for each show, and thus responsible for making sure the room stays black the entire time, said that eventually all the musicians learn to communicate on a different level. “There is one song we do called “Window Pain” where sometimes we do the second chorus and sometimes we don’t. I can always tell what Rosh is thinking just because of the way he’s strumming. So, you’re listening a lot harder, and you can tell little nuances in people’s playing. Instead of visual cues, it’s aural cures, I guess,” Norman said.

In addition to the music, the vegan and gluten free menu is served by the blind, and the attendees must figure out how to pour their own water, find their utensils, and eat in a completely foreign environment. All of that combined makes Blind Café accomplish exactly what Rosh had hoped. “It creates an experience where people get to connect to music — maybe for the first time — without being distracted, all the while raising awareness for an amazing cause and segment of our community.

 

:: The Blind Café::

:: St. John’s Church (Boulder) ::

:: July 14-16 ::

 

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