by Karen Newton
A dimly lighted room with candles lining two walls provides the setting for an intimate performance for 52 people. At Black Iris’ Tiny Bar shows, cellphones are turned off, flash photography is prohibited and the standing audience is respectfully silent.
When renovations began on the multistory space at 321 W. Broad St. in the arts district, the recording studio’s original idea was to use the middle space as a game room with a pool table. “We’ve done so much cool stuff that wasn’t in the original plan,” curator Benjamin Thorp says. “None of this was intentional.”
The gallery discovered the potential of the space accidentally the first time it brought in musicians to celebrate the opening of an exhibit. “We saw what that space was,” says Justin Bailey, creative director at Black Iris Music. “It was our original awareness of that environment, the intimacy of sitting there, hearing music, that did it.”
The Tiny Bar series fully arrived in 2014 with an intimate set featuring Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart. When it was announced that bar service would cease during his set, the black-hatted Russell disagreed.
“Everyone knows bar service is not closed when I play,” he insisted, setting the standard for the series. That invitation-only show for a crowd of 52 set the series in motion and soon people were stopping Thorp to ask when the next show would be.
“We’re trying to control the experience, the number of people there,” Thorp says. “We want it feeling like that original show.”
Limited by its size, but no longer invitation only, the Tiny Bar stage holds no more than three musicians and is best suited to acoustic performances. “Our goal is to create a cultural exchange between the artist and the venue,” Thorp says.
“People trust us because it’s a passion project for us,” Bailey says. The same could be said for record store Steady Sounds, across the street, where 54 tickets are sold for each of the shows and albums by the featured musicians are stocked, making it easy for new fans to pick them up.
“It’s also a respite for the crowd to have a musical experience without the interference of social media,” says Black Iris’ David Jackson. “For the musicians, it’s human interaction with the crowd in its purest form.”
The room’s acoustics, paired with a savvy sound technician, ensure that every musician sounds incredible, no matter the musical genre.
“They don’t have to put on a show, they don’t have to ‘entertain.’ Most bands don’t even use their set list,” sound engineer Rich Stine says. “It’s more of an organic situation. The stars align.”
The next Black Iris shows include Daniel Knox, Oct. 21, 8 p.m.; Diane Cluck, Lobo Marino\ and Ben Shepherd, Oct. 23; and Mind over Mirrors, Oct. 28. Most shows start at 8 p.m. Black Iris, 321 W. Broad St. Call 249-9323 or visit 321westbroad.com/calendar.