Can’t you listen to me baby: Concert series fosters aural discourse

Nick Bonadies
Spectrum Editor

Tuesday night saw Richmond concertgoers locking their bikes en masse to a guardrail leading to a church basement. However, the night’s biggest departure from Richmond-music-scene protocol was not the location.

Headline act Tim Barry, formerly of the punk band Avail, admitted himself to being caught off-guard, though you couldn’t tell it from his playing. He managed to break his jitters with a bit of topical humor: “So, VCU is back in session. What a nightmare.

This was The Listening Room vol. X, the tenth in a series of shows held monthly at St. James Episcopal Church’s Michaux House on West Franklin St., with free admission. There is one rule at The Listening Room,  framed in benevolent gravitas by the door: “No talking during performances.”

“Playing quieter music is tough in places like bars, which are most of the venues in town,” said Jonathan Vassar, local singer-songwriter and co-creator of the series. “The basic idea is to create a quiet environment, to put the listener and the performer … into a space conducive to listening and performing.”

This was certainly a setup for intimate listening as opposed to, say, moshing: it was toasty, like it was November outside, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls (provided free of charge by Apropos Roasters) coated everything. A humming pre-concert crowd was barely lit by strands of Christmas lights and warm antique table lamps. Although the building soon reached full capacity, leaving some waiting outside, the room was raptly attentive as each act took the stage.

Chris Edwards, a bandmate of Vassar’s and series co-creator, said this was their second show to reach legal capacity. “When we first started last November, we didn’t know how it would go,” he said, not having to raise his voice much over the crowd. “I remember the first day setting up, we were hoping for maybe thirty people. Now we even have some people travel big distances [to attend].”

“There’s obviously a crowd that’s really been searching for that kind of venue,” commented Chris Payne, founder of therichmondscene.com, which sponsors the series. “Apparently there’s … a lot of listeners who are interested in a space where they can really listen in a meaningful way.”

For a seasoned performer like Tim Barry, who admitted he was unused to such focused attention on his music, the effect was jarring. “Do any of y’all feel as awkward as I do?” he said, breaking the hush before his first song. Nonetheless, Barry and wingman Josh Small brought a passionate and unforgiving set, addressing such topics as heroism, our unjust treatment of the past, and ironic moustaches in Oregon Hill.

Brothers Jonathan and Alan Parker were more immediately at home in the venue, with richly textured and polyphonic duo guitar. Never phoning it in, their set was multicolored, clever and musically involved, as well as involving for their spellbound listeners.

Andy Cobb, with a crackling Appalachian folk sound, was easily the best music of the evening. Infectiously unpretentious, his surface playfulness belied a deeper sincerity, straying to the realm of heartbreaking when least expected. His voice was the better for being somewhat raw and unpolished – the beauty lies in his growls and falters.

While the end of the first year-long “set” of Listening Rooms ends this October, Vassar said the series hadn’t planned on ending anytime soon – Michaux House is booked until “at least February,” he says, as long as the shows keep drawing crowds and donations. September’s show is set to feature a bill of performers from New York.

As for October, “We’re kind of trying to end the set with the bang,” said Vassar. “I mean, I can’t really say anything bad about anything coming up, but if October was the last show I ever booked, I’d be really happy.”

Check out photos, videos, audio, and more info from past Listening Rooms on their member page at The Richmond Scene, http://www.therichmondscene.com/profile/TheListeningRoom. Shows are every third Tuesday at 8pm at The Michaux House, 1133 W. Franklin St. 23220.  Admission is free.

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