The door of the Lounge at Cosmic Cantina, like the chips that accompany the Cantina's burritos, is a bit of a mystery: If there ever is an answer--as to when the door will open, or why are there no chips with this or that order--it's different every time.
Which is unfortunate because, like that handful of chips and salsa, the Lounge is a modest touch that could add a lot to the scattered but charming Durham scene. So it was a pleasant surprise, on a recent Thursday to hear music once again drifting onto Ninth Street from around the corner. It was somewhat less of a surprise to find that the only people in attendance were the musicians themselves. Nevertheless, they dispelled the door's mystery--for the time being, at least--with the confirmation of a regular, if limited and virtually unannounced, reopening of the local hangout. The Cantina's lounge is back open on Thursdays and weekend nights, after 8 p.m. and well into the morning hours.
The club's staff consists of one man, Ken Vint, a longtime local musician with a voice like Tom Waits with a pinch less gravel. His enthusiasm for the place is so strong that the fact that he gets paid to run it seems almost like a bonus. "This place is very dear to my heart," he says, gesturing with one hand over the Primus logo on his T-shirt, the other waving at the instruments placed among overstuffed couches and velveteen footstools.
The room is decked nearly wall-to-wall with rugs and mirrors, and scattered about with board games and other playroom amusements: Operation, Pictionary, chess and checkerboards, Yahtzee, and most delightfully, Rock-em Sock-em Robots. At the far end is a makeshift stage, packed with drums, guitars, keyboards, bongos and a piano, on which anyone is welcome to play. A microphone dangles above the bar, which is now empty and dry; a staircase in the corner is the pipeline for food and drink from the Cantina. With an enclosed soundboard booth looking out onto the street, the Lounge feels more like a basement studio than a nightclub.
This is, more or less, the intended effect. There once were plans to make it into a working studio, but you can hear the feet of customers shuffling overhead. For several years it was run as a fully operational bar, but that didn't work out either, Vint explains.
He was a Lounge regular six years ago, when it first opened. He found there a loose but talented network of friends and musicians who bonded and collaborated around the casual environment, "to the extent that most of the bands and significant music projects I've since been involved in were started with people I met here years ago."
The musicians and their friends "were treated very well here"--perhaps a little too well. Upon discovering that the bar's liquor was flowing freely and rapidly, the owner shut the party down, reopening the room infrequently. Now stable under Vint's management, it's still not much more than an eccentrically furnished soundstage and living room.
Vint believes that the Lounge still fills a much-needed spot in the Durham community, which is filled with talent but has few venues and an unreliable audience base. "I'm always astonished at some of the players you'll find in Durham," says Vint. "Not even necessarily in bands--they're here working professionally, or just hiding out."
Of course, it takes more than open doors and available equipment to make a scene. One local musician pointed out that while the open stage is a cool idea in theory, there needs to be at least a couple of people in the crowd who can keep a beat.
At the moment, the only people who seem to make use of the place are Vint's band, Veronica Blood, which practices there in the evening, and a handful of Duke students who like to play around sometimes before and after weekend parties. So far, the Lounge appears to be in no rush to schedule events or reinstall service, and Vint just hopes that people will make what they can of it.
On this particular night, the Lounge's offer was taken up. The practicing band left and was soon replaced by an ersatz one, of Duke grad students and a couple of drunk girls on vocals. Two guitarists dueled blues riffs, and a bassist came in with his own axe, striking a conspicuous rock star pose. The noise attracted some business students and visiting Duke alumni. They stood around, baffled but game, as the blues turned to skronk. Some made valiant attempts to dance. Others stood by hooting as an enthusiastic dancer straddled the drummer mid-beat. A couple of dudes joined in on bongos.
"There are no consequences for bad notes, you know--the point is you mess around," said a visibly excited Vint, still darting in and out of the crowd to make unending adjustments to wires and knobs. "Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it can be magnificent." That night at the Lounge, it was a good bit of both.