Such between-song patter makes perfect sense at the "smallest show in town," a monthly hootenanny so informal that its name is written in lowercase letters. "We try to create an atmosphere that seems pretty unique, in that it's pretty casual and pretty comfortable for the performers and the audience," organizer Chris Leone explains via phone from his S.F. home. "I tell the performers I want it to be like they're practicing in their living room, but with a bunch of people listening."
The event -- which kicked off last March -- had its beginnings in Dan Leone's mid-'90s coffeehouse reading series at Java Supreme and, even further back, in "Ed's Basement," a similar night hosted by Dan's earlier band, Ed's Redeeming Qualities, in late-'80s Boston. Like those happenings, the "smallest show" features acoustic performances, because, as Chris says, "Keeping the performers quiet keeps the audience quiet." But unlike most open mikes and Du Nord's "Monday Night Hoot," the current Leone get-together isn't limited to music. "We want it to be a variety show, with as many kinds of entertainment as possible," Chris says. "Part of my whole thing with the show is to get people to stretch their imaginations -- to try to do things they've always wanted to try."
Chris was especially inspired by the Funny Bunnies' performance at last August's Dom Leone tribute shows, in which that band showed off its amateur magic skills. For last week's "smallest show," the group returned as the Amazing Ted & the Funny Bunnies (all three musicians are better-known as members of Fuck), and expanded its routine to include goofy sleight-of-hand tricks, deadpan karate chops, and a stunt that had Ted escaping from a mailbag and reappearing upside down, hanging from a wooden contraption while wearing a crash helmet and playing bass. "The Amazing Ted was a big milestone," Chris says. "They're very established and well-known musicians, but they were doing something totally different."
Other January highlights included Jolie Holland's stunning jazz-folk stylings, 86 member Joe Rut's bruising altcountry tunes, and a reading of cousin Joe Leone's short, sharp, shocked stories. At all the "smallest show" events, Granfaloon Bus bassist Jeff Stevenson cooks grilled cheese sandwiches throughout the evening. (But don't try flirting with him for an extra pickle, ladies; he's getting hitched to Vervein's Rachel Fuller in the spring.) "Jeff is one of the key ingredients of the show -- you don't always get to play with the scent of grilled cheese in the air," Chris laughs.
Lipsey Mountain opens and closes each show, setting the tone for the evening with its good-natured amalgam of calypso and old-time rhythms. It's hard not to get into the spirit of things when drummer Bernie Jungle plays a kit called Shirly that he made from bottle caps, a maple syrup can, a tiny bell, and a snare, or when the group makes a spirited run at Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" without having played it before. Or when, at the end of the night, the featured guests join Lipsey Mountain onstage for a teetering take on "Goodnight Irene," looking like some strange Bay Area version of the Live Aid finale.
Eventually, the song ends, the musicians hug each other, and guest host Jason Porter reads off the performers slated for next month's installment (Feb. 4). "Let's see, we've got Tom Heyman, he's real good, and Nancy Kryglowski from Pittsburgh ..."
"Hey, I know her!" Dan Leone says, seeming both pleased and surprised.
"And Ted Danson will be here," Porter continues. "Brian Dennehy, too -- we haven't seen him in a while ...."
A rim shot, please.
The "smallest show in town" takes place the first Tuesday of the month. Admission is free, but donations are accepted; call 923-0923 or go to www.hemlocktavern.com.