Sound Check

Teenage hipster wannabes, their faces pierced with silver hoops, their cups filled with steaming cappuccino, ambled around the Red Room in Boca Raton a couple of Saturday nights ago, as folkster Michael Stewart strummed his glossy, black Yamaha guitar and talked about Juliana Hatfield, the inspiration for one of the songs he'd just performed on stage.

"I wrote the song as a tribute, because she was one of the people who made me want to pick up the guitar and write and play and sing," Stewart said, exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke. "She has a knack for writing catchy pop songs. Her voice is so sweet, and that's the kind of thing I want to do."

Stewart, age twenty, began his quest for pop success three years ago by teaching himself how to play guitar and bass, the instruments Hatfield plays. He already knew how to play harmonica, tuba, and piano, which he'd learned from his grandmother. But it was as a guitarist that he founded a short-lived garage band with other loners from his Pompano Beach neighborhood. "It didn't work out," said Stewart, sitting in a beat-up La-Z-Boy, a cappuccino machine hissing nearby. "So I guess I'm a solo artist and will be for a while, which is cool 'cause I really get a sense of accomplishment when I perform."

Another idol is the introspective singer-songwriter Evan Dando, who played with Hatfield as part of the late-Eighties band Blake Babies. When Stewart met Dando at the sound check before a recent Lemonheads performance in Fort Lauderdale, he was handed some advice. "He told me to keep striving and writing and playing, and everything would eventually fall into place," Stewart recalled. "He was great."

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Stewart can usually be found where acoustic aficionados thrive: open-mic coffeehouses. "I like the atmosphere of them," he said. "The people are always cool, and it feels real homey."

Stewart's favorite caffeine-enhanced venues include Borders bookstores, the now-defunct New World Cafe (Coral Springs), and the Red Room, where he performs on Saturday nights, the cappuccino machines providing the background vocals. If you're not into coffee, Stewart says he should have a four-song cassette out in early April.

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