By Amanda Wicks
Live music in Baton Rouge recently reached a new level with Drop the Needle, an event held the fourth Thursday of every month at Chelsea’s small bar. The idea combines the best of both musical worlds: studio album and live show.
Royal Cyclops Productions, responsible for many of the other songwriter nights in town, puts together the event. The idea takes some of people’s favorite classic albums and reimagines them through quirky instrument choices, new arrangements, or sheer ingenuity.
The night revolves around one album, and local musicians gather to play it from start to finish. In the past, albums have included The Kink’s Muswell Hillbillies, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and most recently Neil Young’s Harvest in June.
Although local musician David Hinson had never heard Harvest, he came to Drop the Needle fully aware of its reputation. “There’s something about this record,” he says. “It’s like an old girlfriend.”
Most musicians who take the stage have played Drop the Needle in the past. For Billy Finney, who contributed to the Harvest evening, it was his third time. Billy likens the night to “a high wire act with no net.” While the group gets together two or three times before the night to practice, anything can happen and it’s those moments that keep drawing people back to see more. Still, Billy adds, “It’s a safe and forgiving environment.”
Paul Lauve, trumpeter for The Swinging Willows and a musician familiar with jazz, appreciates the “organic experience” Drop the Needle fosters. “It’s easier to play folk in some ways, and it’s harder to play in some ways,” he says. “It’s easier because the chords are simpler, but then it’s more difficult because I’m playing by ear most of the time.”
The overall mission is not to reproduce each track verbatim but to interpret it. The musicians keep each song’s backbone – the original idea of Young’s song – but weaves in what Baton Rouge’s local musicians have to offer. The result is something tried and true fans, as well as those new to the album, can both appreciate.
So, as Billy explains, when Clay Parker played the fifth and title track on Young’s Harvest, it was never meant to sound like an exact replica. “Clay’s very much an artist, since he produces his own music. When Clay covers a song, he will still sound like Clay,” Billy explains. And this is where the charm of the night comes to play. For those familiar with Baton Rouge’s music scene, one that increasingly favors original music over cover songs, the local talent puts their own spin on it. For the famous track, “A Man Needs a Maid,” Rob Chidester of Royal Cyclops Productions asked three women to play. The result? Denise Brumfield’s, Margaret Marsten Abrahams’s, and Melissa Wilson’s harmonies brought to life untapped possibilities in the song. Their presence played on the lyrics that a single male singer would not have achieved.
And that’s exactly the point.
For fans of these albums or even for those who aren’t as familiar with them, these nights become a time to explore the songs. As Billy maintains, “Even Young’s live album never reproduces exactly what you hear on the studio cut of Harvest.”
Since many of the albums don’t run over an hour, the night begins and ends with additional tracks by the night’s featured artist.
To start, Margaret Marston Abrahams sang the title track from Young’s later album Harvest Moon. Such choices present a fuller spectrum of the artist beyond the featured album, and host Rob Chidester builds upon this by peppering the space between each “track” with small historical snippets that delve into the artist’s background. Before “Old Man” starts, Chidester explains where Young got the inspiration for it, and that knowledge provides audiences with a new way to listen to the song.
From the limited standing room available for the Harvest night, it’s clear that Drop the Needle has quickly become one of the go-to events for Baton Rouge’s live music scene.
Drop the Needle returns July 24 featuring “John Prine” from 1971. The ensemble will consist of: Rondo Hatton, Rick Price, Bill Romano, Hal Higgins and various other fine players.
Performers will include: Barry Hebert, Steve Judice, Margaret Fowler Abrahams, Melissa Wilson, Ryan Harris, Clay Parker, James Best, Drew Thompson and Sheryl Southwick.