On the night of winter's first snowstorm, more than 100 people trudged through calf-deep powder to fill the confines of the Michaux House. The attraction that December evening was the second installment of the Listening Room series, an event that gives acoustic acts a quiet place to perform and the audience a quiet place to listen.
Organized by Jonathan Vassar, Chris Payne, Matt Klimas, Chris Edwards and a supporting cast, the series offers something immediately outside the box. Perhaps the intrigue is the intimacy of a house show coupled with the atmosphere of a coffeehouse, and completely legitimate. “The gallery owners we approached were like, ‘It sounds great, but I'm not going to be doing anything for awhile,'” Vassar says. “A lot of hands were slapped.”
The series began with the idea that acoustic performers needed a dedicated place to play uninterrupted. This idea started 10 years ago, when Vassar booked acoustic shows at Betsy's in Carytown.
“I would play, Josh [Small] would play, Liza [Kate] would play.” Vassar recalls. “We'd do it every other week, tons of people would come, and everyone would be really quiet. A little coffee grinding in the background.” A similarly quiet gig Vassar and his band the Speckled Bird played, what is now referred to as “the Mormon house show,” revived the desire for something like that again in Richmond.
At first, organizers didn't foresee the Listening Room as an ongoing event or even held in the same location. The space of the Michaux House, which normally holds Sunday school groups, sort of fell into their laps. Edwards, who plays in the Speckled Bird, is director of youth and young adult ministries for St. James's Episcopal Church, which owns the building “The church leadership thinks it's great,” he says, “because one of the goals of renovating this building is to be present in the community and offer it as communal space.” After all, the coffeehouses of the '60s began as church-based spaces for songwriters to perform.
But organizers were unsure how many people would come out. the Listening Room's debut in November, with Tennessee's Englishman and Richmond's the Low Branches and Ferdinand Thomas, went so well that everything else just fell into place.
“We thought if we got 30 people, it would be awesome.” Edwards says. “When we hit 90, we were shocked. We thought, maybe there really is an interest and a draw in this, so we should do it [every month].”
The care they took in designing the layout, the backdrop, and the posters testifies to their level of commitment. Klimas designed the screens for the backdrop, based on a Victorian-era print by English designer William Morris. “A lot of things we were talking about in terms of the feel, in terms of the visual, of the environment,” Klimas says — “we kept coming back to these old, dreamy textures.”
Another way they increase the collaborative nature of the event is by having a different artist design the poster and materials each month, using the gramophone and bird images as a starting point. Fans are also encouraged to become involved through videotaping, recording and photographing the musicians, as long as they're quiet about it. Much of the artistic documentation of the Listening Room is archived on Payne's Web site, therichmondscene.com.
With dates secured till September, the Listening Room will remain something Richmonders can count on. Tuesday nights at 8, acoustic music, the Michaux House — quiet and free. Such consistency appeals to both artists and fans. “With the Listening Room,” Payne says, “we created a space where whether or not you know who's playing, you know when it happens and you know it's somewhere you want to be.”
The Michaux House feels like a refuge from the city, but it's more than a place that feels like home. And as for the performances, it's like the difference between watching TV through an antenna and seeing it in high definition. You experience the force of Josh Small's pipes, the warmth of Liza Kate's acoustic guitar and the crispness of Jessika Blanks' violin. “Usually, you go to a show and there's all this static and white noise, people talking, other distractions going on,” Edwards says. “I think for the people playing the Listening Room and the people coming to watch, they want to distill that down into something more immediate and pure and unadulterated.”
So feel free to stare at people who are talking.
The Listening Room series returns to the Michaux House at 1135 W. Franklin St. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. The lineup includes Dean Fields, the Thirds and the Snowy Owls and Friends. Free.