Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Make the Most of Our Time

Once upon a time, when my life was very different and so was the Richmond music scene, a new concept took hold.

It was November 2009 when the Listening Room opened up the basement doors of the Michaux house and welcomed in anyone and everyone willing to shut up and listen while the music played, here.

Back then, it was so refreshing to be able to go to a show where you knew you'd be able to hear every note, every harmony. And the string of twinkle lights would reliably fall from the low basement ceiling every time.

Like death and taxes, some things are certainties.

Tonight marked the end of that remarkable string of shows with the final installment of the Listening Room at the Firehouse Theater.

One thing about tonight was non-negotiable: I was going to sit in my usual seat come hell or high water.

So I arrived early enough to stake my territory and hang out with the LR crew whom I've gotten to know over the years. Emcee Chris saw me and said, "I'd have been devastated if you hadn't come."

As if.

When I finally took my seat I was joined by my favorite Jackson Ward couple, also long-time LR regulars.

A few minutes later, photographer Rob, part of the original crew, came over to bring the three of us glasses of bubbly to celebrate our nearly half a decade allegiance to the Listening Room.

One of the LR rules is that shows start on time but tonight's was a tad tardy with emcee Chris taking the stage to acknowledge as much.

He shared that the very first night of the series, Apropos Roasters brought coffee but forgot to bring a grinder. Now, almost five years later, they have an actual coffee shop. Time marches forward.

Appropriately, tonight's first act was Dogs on Main Street, also known as Mac, a fine singer and musician I first saw at the Listening Room back in February 2011 when he was the first one to inaugurate the move from the Michaux House to the Firehouse.

I've seen him many times since  and he only continues to sound less raw and more poignant, although the one thing that hasn't changed is his stellar self-deprecating sense of humor, in full flower tonight.

After his first heartfelt song, he explained that over the next few songs he was going to take us low and then lower and then back up and even higher. "So don't leave," he warned. "I'm not responsible for what happens if you do."

Anyone who had left (no one did) would have missed his second song ending abruptly when a string on his guitar snapped.

He'd come down from NYC on a Greyhound bus and so hadn't brought his usual second guitar. "I'm crashing and burning," he joked.

Mark of second band Vandaveer stepped out of the shadows and offered him a pack of guitar strings, asking, "What do you need?"

A guitar, Mac said and used Mark's to continue while Mark graciously took Mac's guitar backstage to restring it in the meantime.

Singer songwriter and LR originator Jonathan Vassar was called onstage and brought his wife's maternity accordion to join Mac for a song, an obvious mutual admiration society.

"You know what you get for trying to be different?" Mac asked us rhetorically. "A broken string!"

He chose to skip the song called "Gallows" even after he got his guitar returned and restrung, cracking wise saying, "I have download cards, postcards and an overdue credit card."

My favorite lines was, "I'm just an alley cat yearning for something more than this," at least until he played a new song and I heard him sing, "I guess my sins are at an even keel."

Saying that he was still going to be beating himself up about the broken string when he went to bed, Mac shared that at his release show at the Camel, he'd kicked his own cord out. "So what you saw tonight is pretty regular. Come talk to me after the show if I don't seem too unbearable."

Talented, yes. Hysterical for sure. Unbearable, not even a little. Dogs on Main Street is the epitome of what the Listening Room is about.

Talented musician with excellent songwriting chops and distinctive voice is introduced to music-loving masses and becomes part of local scene.

Tonight's crowd was understandably big and I felt a little sorry for those whose first LR was tonight. Imagine experiencing this and knowing it will be no more.

Once the second act began, the LR crew took the stage for a sort of mass farewell. Jonathan entreated us to keep listening. Antonia explained that there were people here tonight who'd been at that first Firehouse show seeing Mac and asked that those of us who'd been at the very first Michaux House show raise our hands.

We were a small group, but undoubtedly with some of the fondest memories in the room.

As he always does, Chris reminded us that the audience was 50% of the LR's success formula and even said, "Karen's been to more Listening Rooms than I have." The man didn't lie.

Next up was Vandaveer, a band I consider my May band. I first saw them in May 2011 and then again in May 2012, meaning I was overdue for my May Vandaveer fix.

They've been on a living room tour since April 1, covering over 13,000 miles with 3,000 left to go before the end of the month.

Leader Mark explained that he lived in Arlington, Virginia, singer Rose in Massachusetts and pedal steel player Tom was from Pennsylvania.

"For those of you keeping score, we play commonwealth music," he cracked. Literate humor, I like that. And if you ask me, it's better described as poetic music.

And I don't just like his voice, I adore his voice, which, as the girlfriend sitting next to me observed, "I even like his speaking voice." Uh huh.

Their sound is sort of alt-folk with his acoustic guitar bumped up with just enough reverb to tread near rock territory but Tom's pedal steel and Rose's exquisite voice on harmony and sometimes lead anchoring things firmly in LR territory.

When Mark mentioned that Tom was a Civil War buff who had spent some hours looking at Richmond's historic sites like Cold Harbor, he called us the birthplace of entrenchments.

"We used to make out there," my friend said leaning in as he husband sat oblivious on the other side of her.

The buoyant "However Many Takes It Takes," a song about perseverance, a subject I know well, won my vote for the line, "I'll be in the kingdom of your dreams."

"Sometimes it requires all arms and legs be on the ground to solve technical difficulties," Mark said at one point, pulling stuff out of the power strip in front of him and then flinging them over his shoulder. "None of that was necessary but it was for dramatic effect."

Dramatic aptly described his voice and Rose's over Tom's pedal steel or slide guitar and each song shimmered with the talent of the three. We couldn't have asked for a finer band to finish out the Listening Room.

For a soulful song about the coming apocalypse, Mark said, "There's nothing you can do except snap and sing along," which is about what I plan to do when the apocalypse finally does arrive.

Off their album of murder ballads from last year ("We sold dozens and dozens of that album"), they did "Pretty Polly" as Mark put it, "Modernized for your contemporary ears." That meant instead of guitar, he sang and stamped on the wooden floor.

We got another from that album when Rose sang "The Drunkard's Doom" and about brought the house down with her exquisite voice, sort of Emmylou Harris-like.

Then there was more literary humor when Mark told of writing a song because of Beverly Cleary and I wondered how many people in the crowd knew who she or Ramona Quimby had been.

Saying he couldn't call it "Ramona" because of Dylan's "To Ramona," he'd titled it "Beverly Cleary's 115th Dream," although he admitted that he didn't know that it was really her 115th.

Peace and love and harmony
and all the things that lovers need
Like hope and health and clarity and time
Oh, precious, precious time

And, just like that, the final Listening Room wound down. Mark called up the entire LR crew - Antonia, Jonathan, Chris, Rob, Nate- and Mac for the big singalong finale, Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House."

I've no doubt that some of that crew got a bit misty up there singing because I know the long-time regulars in the room felt that way.

It was a really good run and the Listening Room set new standards for shows in this town. Oh, and the bands I discovered through being at almost every Listening Room. All the people I met there.

But it's not the end of the world, It's just a closing of the circle. It's run its course and now we'll have Listening Room Presents shows on an occasional basis.

What matters most is what Jonathan said. Keep on listening.

You better believe I will.

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