Music and more on the menu at Songbird Cafe

There's a new eclectic little coffeehouse just open in Old Lyme, complete with comfortable velveteen sofas, locally-made muffins and scones, soups and sandwiches, free WiFi and, of course, fresh-brewed coffees and teas. Its interior French doors open invitingly into the diane birdsall gallery. One could make a day of it.

But Songbird Café is first a haven for homegrown musicians, supported by good food and coffee. On Friday nights, the cafe transforms into an intimate performance venue for aspiring young artists, high school students and young adults from southeastern Connecticut, as well as some big-name artists.

"We're all about the music, giving young people a chance to perform in front of people, rubbing elbows with national performing artists and mentors," said Gail Stevens, executive director of Bring Our Music Back, Inc., a non-profit organization started in 2010 with help from the Bombaci Family Foundation. The organization's mission is to support music programs and services in communities along the shoreline.

One of the group's first ventures was to bring back live concerts at Harkness Memorial Park with its August Nights at Harkness series, started in 2010. Bring our Music Back has been awarded a five-year contract by the state to continue the series, which supports the New London High School Band and other area music programs.

Funds raised through concerts, the coffeehouse and a festival of trees and music exhibit at the Lyme Art Association between Thanksgiving and Christmas will support a summer music camp at Harkness for elementary and high school students, planned for 2012, scholarships for students to other music camps, and other local programs. The group also is launching a used musical instrument collection and restoration project to put instruments into the hands of students and schools that don't have the funds.

The coffeehouse has come together quickly, decorated with donated furniture from supporters' attics. On opening night it wowed the audience with nationally-acclaimed violinist Raycurt Johnson, aka "da Fiddla," who played at President Obama's inauguration. Tonight, local blues mama Sue Menhart takes the stage. On Oct. 28, Waterford High student Noah Feldman will open for Grammy-winning Canadian blues singer Morgan Davis.

"It's a place for youth to come on a Friday night for a few hours and see another young person perform," said Stevens. "It will be good talent, too."

The concept is a win-win for adults, too, Stevens says, not only because it is a safe and supportive activity for their teenagers. Plans are for the last Friday of every month to feature a regional or national adult artist, so parents get a night out, too.

Molly Bowers, of Old Lyme, was the first student soloist to play the cafe. The 16-year-old songwriter has already impressed established Nashville musicians so much that she regularly takes part in writers' circles, where composers share their works.

"Molly's music is very poignant for such a young person," said Dot Nielson, host of Gramma's Attic Radio Show, a weekly classical music program on WCNI 90.9 FM, and chairman of Bring Our Music Back's entertainment and artistic development program. She also books the performing artists for the coffeehouse. "I find Molly to be extremely rich in her words and the depth of maturity in her writing."

On Friday night, Bowers performed one of her first compositions, "I Need You," which she wrote for her younger brother, Patrick Michael, who had a rare genetic muscle weakness disease, X-linked myotubular myopathy (XLMTM), and required constant ventilated oxygen to breathe. He lived to be 8 years old; she was 10 when he passed.

"We think her brother is behind much of her music," said their father, Patrick. He credits the YPI summer music camp, started as a side business by former Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School principal Jeff Ostroff, for helping Molly to find her writing style. The family makes regular trips to Nashville for Molly to continue working with musical mentors.

Stevens said the organization is continually looking for new musicians in the region to perform at the coffeehouse, as well as donations of items for the coffeehouse, old instruments of any kind and support for its endowment. The coffeehouse is open Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Friday coffeehouse performances from 7 to 9 p.m. For information and schedule, see bringourmusicback.org.

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