Song-and-Dance Man 

All B.J. Kocen wants is a room full of people.

His latest project, "Stretchin'," a series of concerts at the North Side's Stir Crazy Cafe, brings him back to one of his favorite things, playing music live, with some of his favorite people. And to think it all started with a moment that is for many people a nightmare.

In studies of fear conducted over the years, public speaking ranks at the top of the list, higher even than death for many people. So when Kocen recalls his childhood as one in which he sought the limelight — for no reason he can discern — it becomes clear that he's not like many people.

"All I knew is, I wanted to be onstage," he says. He had a friend whose father owned a club, and somehow (first-grade memories are dim) he was given the chance to get onstage. So with his messed-up hair and a T-shirt reading "Master of Disaster," he says, he got up onstage and there he was. He hadn't thought beyond that, and so: "I don't know what I said. I probably just bullshitted them." His act has expanded over the years.

In college he studied theater, but slowly moved into playing and writing music. The imprint of acting is still with him, in his facial expressions, which constantly rework themselves. He was in a band, Treehouse, with a friend, a group with a lot of the harmonizing characteristics of early-'90s feel-good tunes. "I'm tellin' you, every f—in' song had "la-las' in it," he says, laughing. So Treehouse wasn't quite the dream.

He met Paul Curreri around this time — Curreri's now a singer-songwriter out of Charlottesville — and together with Andrew Gibson, they started a band. "Paul was really kinda instrumental to me," Kocen says, helping him refine his style.

Kocen says that band, 21 Sun, had potential but failed. "Everybody wanted to get famous and everything," he says. "But we were just kids." Curreri's and Kocen's acoustic guitars reunite Jan. 21 for a "Stretchin'" show. Each will play a set of his own tunes, then they'll play together.

Years later, in 1999, Kocen moved to Ashland and worked at a small coffeehouse called Ashland Coffee and Tea. He pushed for the two-year-old coffee shop to book national acts, and in addition to booking and promotion, he good-naturedly served as sound-man, emcee and waiter during the shows. This is when Kocen identified the current that brought the young Master of Disaster onstage: He enjoys bringing people into a room. As a bonus, he also met his wife, Jennifer, in Ashland.

They moved to the North Side, and in that quiet backwater he got the idea for "Stretchin'." He called Jerry Bistline, owner of Stir Crazy Cafe, and told him his idea for a monthly series. Bistline went for it, and says after three shows they are selling out. "I believe that we are going to continue," Bistline says — "B.J. willing. I'm willing as well."

And Kocen gets to bring it all around, playing laid-back sets with friends from his days in college and Ashland. "It brings that feeling of looseness and intimacy in front of an audience," he says. He brings people into the room and, lucky for them, Kocen now has something to do onstage. S



Kocen and Curreri play at Stir Crazy Cafe, 4015 MacArthur Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. For information, call 864-0264.

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