Their Fire's So Delightful

As its swan lights dim to honey, the Loft melts off a little of that overreaching hip factor. Plush gallery furnishing isn’t quite as forbidding with the warmth of people filling out its stark white-and-lime corners. While it might be some time before UCSD’s newest performance lounge earns that all-powerful dance-party draw, the space does prove well equipped for humbler occasions — such as this month’s Folk Series, which hosts a revival of the humbler sort. And maybe, like a shiny pair of shoes, that’s just the kind of living-in the Loft needs to scuff its place on the campus’ social front.

Last Sunday’s lineup of scraggly young folkies (cocktail nibbles were swapped for scones) felt just right: an almost crowd-level stage — oft overwhelmed by one too many crammed musicians — catered comfortably to the solo acts. As November fogged the windows overlooking the Student Services Center parking lot, a sizeable audience cushioned one faint spotlight in collective hush. This was a place where even no-name MySpace hopefuls could play to an intermittent head-nod and attentive ear walk-ins welcome.

Denison Witmer was quick to comment on the eerie politeness of it all, tucking his mousy side-bang behind one ear. “When I play at the Casbah, it’s like, me versus airplanes.” Easy to imagine the rumpled poet swept by stock-nightclub clamor, his sleepy pillow fluff lost like so many dandelion seeds in the wind. Apparently giddy with undivided attention, Witmer’s chitchat soon swelled to neo-rodeo campfire as he shared long-winded gripes on PT Cruisers, and L.A. snobs who rattle on about pointless things.

Fortunately for the cozy Lofters, the Philly rambler’s tunes didn’t bear the tedium of his indulgent storytelling. “Carry the Weight” leaked of strained hippie sweetness, a meandering ballad akin to skipping stones on the ol‘ family pond. Drowsy-eyed he pressed, “Carry the weight of your brother/ Carry the weight of your sister (mother, etc.)” and suddenly, the power of one guy with his acoustic guitar broke surface, each dusty low answered by sharp twangs of clarity. Even if his aesthetic evoked re-hashed ’70s anthems, there were moments when such introspective scraps rattled with grandeur, moving in their impossibly gentle humility.

Midway through, positively drugged by acoustic showers, the impulse was to either rise and hold our neighbor’s hand or fall to the cradling of heavy-lidded lullabies. “Are You a Dreamer?” allowed us this kind of naptime as Witmer scattered slow coos of, “Dream/ Are you a dreamer?/ Do you dream?,” turning harplike flutters that never dipped wistful in wimp. With an expertly poised honesty, it’s easy to see why Witmer’s been tagged as the next Elliot Smith — over six years and albums his narratives have been buffed to their bare and beautiful essentials.

The night’s second act Adam Stephens is no fresh face to the scene either, despite opening his set apologetically by cautioning us that it was only his fourth time playing solo. Fourth?! Maybe so, but as the former half of bluesy Saddle Creek duo Two Gallants, it’s unlikely that the stage is unfamiliar. Diverging from Witmer’s easy pulls, the plaid-clad grunge kid whipped out his electric guitar for some rougher tugging. Where Witmer’s aches trickled easy and true, Stephens’ coursed in throbbing heaves — dense, dirty strokes braking only at the occasional drag for air.

“Half the songs,” he explained, “I usually play on the piano.” But the shovel of groans over high-pitched creaking might seem too crude for pretty ivories; even as the microphone accidentally slipped — a student production crew racing to adjust it — Stephens buckled lower for some improvised steel slamming, as if that kind of thing happened all the time. When his crescendos reached their cracking point we began an instant voyage into gritty Mississippi — not as easy to digest, perhaps, but a helluva lot more fun than dreamy shoe-gazing. Some couldn’t hack Stephens’ jagged edges, ushering out after a requisite first listen; but for those who stayed, the Skip James-inspired slaps were a welcome boost.

On board next Sunday, Patrick Park is set to “Arrive with a whisper/ Head out with a bang,” as in last year’s Everyone’s in Everyone. With Matt Costa-esque shimmies lifting cloudier textures, the singer/songwriter will undoubtedly fatten the Loft’s repertoire of clever young gentlemen.

Park, a Colorado native, originally favored Metallica over Odetta in his headbangin’ boyhood — but a poetic mama and blues-loving pops eventually rocked their kid’s fancies toward New York, where he arrived with delusions of peddling rootsy folk. Like most Big Apple romances, though, the love affair soon plummeted — L.A. seemed a friendlier place to nourish his distinguishing mash of Pixies chaos and classic John Lee Hooker boogie. A couple self-released demos later, and 2003’s watertight Loneliness Knows My Name hit the shelves.

If the Loft has ever been accused of lacking a little focus, November’s folk series demonstrates the overwhelming potential of its slightly wobbly, if ambitious, programming. With a different act for almost every day of the week, there must inevitably be some wiggle room for a nightclub still in its second month — but with the drawling cool of Witmer, Stephens and Park, the Loft seems destined for a clear-sailing future.