By Amanda Wicks
Just when the midweek lull hits and it seems as though there’s nothing to do until the start of the weekend, your friendly local musicians have something else in mind to get you over the hump. Every Wednesday, they’ve been gathering at Chelsea’s under the overpass to take part in Songwriters in the Round, a new event that exposes audiences to live original music.
On the surface, Songwriters in the Round may seem like the open mic nights found throughout Baton Rouge. But this is a far cry from that kind of set-up. Building on the tradition of original music in an environment that encourages (read: requires) attention, Songwriters in the Round presents a fresh take on acoustic performance. Like so many open mic nights, it emerges from the idea of creating a space where singer-songwriters can gather to practice their craft in front of an audience. Yet, that’s where the similarity ends.
Royal Cyclops Productions, responsible for orchestrating events designed to promote original music in Baton Rouge, hosts the event. Rob Chidester, who owns and operates Royal Cyclops, invites nine to 12 area musicians to each play two original songs. He breaks up the musicians into three rounds and encourages them to play with one another. In these moments, the songwriters onstage may know one another but may have never played together, which provides the opportunity for unique collaborations. In addition to the singer-songwriters, Chidester also designates a weekly “picker,” who purposely augments each singer-songwriter’s song by adding harmonies, solos, or a fuller sound.
Chidester is incredibly particular about how he crafts each Wednesday evening. He carefully selects the musicians involved in order to keep the event fresh. That means different musicians or different groupings (aka “rounds”) appear each week. “I want to top each show,” he says. Part of his particularity extends to the evening’s strict No Covers policy. Since Chidester aims to showcase local talent and cultivate an audience that “wants to hear original music,” covers take away from the evening’s purpose.
Songwriters in the Round grew out of the weekly Songwriters Showcase held at the Red Dragon Listening Room. Those evenings featured around three to four musicians, who each performed a small set of original music. With Chidester’s goal to keep things fresh so that audiences don’t lose interest, he moved the event to Chelsea’s for the summer and changed things up. “It’s tougher to bring a summer crowd out, but Chelsea’s draws from such a great neighborhood,” he explains. Rather than focus on a few musicians’ many songs, he invited many musicians to play a few songs.
Doc Chaney of The Fugitive Poets often sits in on the evening’s various rounds and plays fiddle. For Doc, “It’s a chance to play with people you normally wouldn’t.” It seems fair to claim that most of the musicians who play Songwriters in the Round don’t often get the chance to hear their music in such acoustically full form. Between the picker and Doc, something special emerges. It’s clear from the smiles on each performer’s face that they’re aware of that very specialness.
As with most Royal Cyclops’ shows, Chidester wants the audience to listen. It’s a rule that many of the musicians appreciate. Steve Judice, who often plays Songwriters in the Round, says, “People come for the purpose of listening and save the socializing for after.” Benjamin Moore, who can frequently be found in one of the evening’s rounds, notices the difference a listening audience makes. “It’s a chance to have people hear you and appreciate you. To really listen,” he says. The evening acts as a motivating force for those wishing to hone their craft. “You can try out new stuff. It motivates me to write new stuff knowing people will listen,” Moore maintains.
Many singer-songwriters act as a backdrop to Baton Rouge’s bar scene, fighting against the din of the crowd. Songwriters in the Round makes them the specific focal point, but the result also benefits the audience. “It expands people’s musical knowledge of Baton Rouge,” Chaney explains. “They get to hear something that moves away from the genres traditionally associated with the city.”
Songwriters in the Round takes place every Wednesday at 7:30pm.