The tendency to romanticize local color isn’t unique to the South, but it may be uniquely common here. In Birmingham particularly, given how high a mountain the city’s had to climb to restore its reputation after the horrors of the ‘60s, it’s standard operating procedure to glorify every little hole-in-the-wall place that adds to the life of the city. As vices go, that kind of rose-tinted provincialism is pretty mild, and there are places that absolutely justify their reputations.
Eclipse Coffee and Books, perhaps the best-loved institution in Montevallo, is one of them. The bar, restaurant, concert venue and general gathering place will celebrate its 12th anniversary on Tuesday, September 24 with a free concert from the tremendous Mississippi double bill of Dent May and Dead Gaze.
Like many beloved cultural institutions down South, Eclipse had humble origins, founded on the remains of a putt-putt course in 2001. After tiring of the commute to and from Birmingham, Cheryl Patton opened the café to become closer to her community and to her husband, who teaches philosophy at Montevallo. As the years have gone on, the coffee house and bookstore has evolved into more of a restaurant and bar, one aspect of a versatility that’s helped it to survive 12 years.
Another key element, of course, is that Eclipse has endeared itself to its community in Montevallo. “It’s a real cross section,” Patton said of her patrons. “We get church groups that come on Thursdays, a knitting group, a group of older men who come by and drink PBR all afternoon, we’ve got college students and faculty, high school kids, elementary school kids – it’s the whole town.”
All the enthusiasm and passion in the world wouldn’t mean much in the unforgiving restaurant business if Eclipse didn’t have excellent taste. Eclipse gets its coffee from FinerGrind, a one-man operation out of Warrior, Alabama who can name the farmers that supply each bean. They’re also known for their milkshakes, which can involve blending an entire slice of pie. And, of course, Eclipse works well as a music venue, booking exciting young groups from a wide spectrum of genres to play cover-free shows.
Oxford, Mississippi artist Dent May might be the most high-profile act to come through Eclipse yet. An indie rocker with some old-fashioned pop sensibilities, May is coming off the best record in his short career, Warm Blanket, released in August on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label. Dead Gaze – May’s backing band, as well as his good friends – veer into a more psychedelic, rock-oriented direction, and had a great deal of success at this year’s Secret Stages festival.
“We’re like a wedding reception band on acid,” May joked, describing his band’s unusual sensibilities. May is a pop music devotee and autodidact, learning the history of the form through his parents’ record collection and AllMusic guides. Straight-laced late-‘70’s FM pop, Beach Boys psychedelia and ‘90s piano house combine into one sound that’s become unmistakably May’s, one that might be confused for hipster irony if it weren’t so wonderfully sincere.
Despite the sunny veneer of his music, however, the themes of Warm Blanket continuously return to May’s sense of alienation in the modern world, a Weltschmerz succinctly stated in the record’s earworm lead single, “Born Too Late.” Citing Faulkner’s doomed Romantic Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, May described his songwriting process as a therapeutic means of alleviating his own inner turmoil. When he’s not just trying to make people happy, May’s songwriting can be almost as affecting as Brian Wilson’s simple plaints on Pet Sounds (has there ever been a more concise expression of despair than “Sometimes I feel very sad”?).
“A lot of people, they hear pop music, and it’s a few notches below ‘serious’ music on their totem pole of cultural contexts,” said May. “Most critics don’t really get that this music comes from such a dark place. … You have to really be honest and sincere and come from a true place, but you can’t give away too many details. People need to be able to engage with your music however they want to. If they don’t really get that it’s coming from a pure, sincere place, it’s because they don’t look for that.”
As serious as May is when approaching his craft, it should be noted that when playing live, he’s a consummate entertainer. With only a keyboardist in tow, he provided the most singularly joyous set at Huntsville’s Happenin Fest back in the spring, a funky, rollicking hour of dancing and banter. While he considers himself a searcher for deeper truths about himself and his art, May is also resolutely committed to having a good time.
As part of his Romantic sensibilities in his role as searcher, another thing that’s always characterized May is his wanderlust. “I kind of believe in that cliché that it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with,” he said. “I love the people down here, and I think that pop culture is the number one thing that allows people to connect.” That’s a meaningful statement coming from someone who makes elegant, gorgeous, catchy music about how hard it can be to connect.
In a sense, it’s a perfect marriage of musician and venue. With its relaxed, friendly atmosphere, welcoming porch and bevy of cats, Eclipse is the kind of place that invites good company. With his intelligent, energetic and big-hearted brand of pop music, Dent May should be exactly the kind of artist to make its 12th anniversary one to remember.
Eclipse Coffee and Books is located at 1032 Main St. in Montevallo. Dent May and Dead Gaze will play on Tuesday, September 24 at 9 p.m.