With two CDs and a countless number of local gigs under his belt, Mark Islam is a veteran of the Los Angeles-area singer-songwriter scene. Through his connections to this community, the artist was able to embark on his most recent endeavor, Grassroots Acoustica. With this monthly happening at Culver City’s Synergy Café and Lounge, Islam serves, by his own admission, as the “rolodex,” bringing together an eclectic group of performers to ultimately raise funds for various charities. But, despite his own background, he is generally unlikely to appear on the coffeehouse stage.
“I won’t play the nepotism card,” says Islam of his decision to abstain from showcasing his own work at these events. He will lend a hand as needed, though, such as when actress and singer Karen Black needed a guitar player.
As the host of Grassroots Acoustica, Islam certainly finds a creative rush from filling the Sepulveda Boulevard café with a “repertory cast of players” ready and willing to collaborate with each other. Central to the allure of Grassroots Acoustica are “artists in residence” Tom and Byron, who Islam first caught at Santa Monica’s Talking Stick, where the two hosted Wednesday evening events until the coffeehouse announced its impending closure.
“They turned this place that had a lot of things going against it into a living room,” says Islam of what he found impressive about the duo upon first listen. “One of the things that we wanted to do was turn [Synergy] into a living room of an immensely talented musical family.”
Certainly, the group has done just that with Grassroots Acoustica. Islam recalls the first event, when Jennifer Warnes, who he considers to be “one of the greatest singers of all time, space and dimension,” appeared in the audience.
“At one point, [noted guitarist, songwriter, and producer] Rick Cunha did this song, and if you had any sort of musical aptitude, you would be singing along with the chorus and this was an audience of singers, great singer,” he recalls. “I was standing by the side of the stage and the whole café was singing. In and around all of these great voices was that unmistakable Jennifer Warnes’ fill. It was just magical to me.”
Islam’s voice grows similarly elated when he mentions the funds that the project has raised for such varied organizations as The Blank Theatre Company and Project Angel Food. At an October event for the benefit of weSPARK, the breast cancer organization founded by the late actress Wendie Jo Sperber, Grassroots Acoustica raised an impressive $1,322.
“I floated for five days after that,” says Islam. “I could not believe that this purely voluntary event in this room that seats 35 comfortably, 75 uncomfortably, that they contributed so much and so generously.”
Grassroots Acoustica’s December 1 event will benefit the Nicolette Larson Pediatric Endowment at Mattel Children’s Hospital of UCLA. The event will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of singer Nicolette Larson, best known for the 1979 Neil Young cover “Lotta Love.” The line-up will feature Larson’s peers and fans performing some of her classic songs. As usual, there will be no cover charge, but donations will be accepted.