The listening room is to music what the slow-food movement is to foodie culture. Both are about a kind of intimacy and focused attention designed to immerse you in the experience of the craft. Did I just use the words "intimacy" and "craft" in relation to food as well as to music? Guilty. In the same way that slow food encourages people to appreciate the culinary mechanics behind each plate, shows witnessed in small venues put the intricate artistry of the musician on full display. And if done well, both yield tasty dishes.
This is an unapologetic piece in favor of supporting the insular room, the basement club, the shaggy backroom of the dive bar, the funky grotto, the modest historic theater, or the quaint church turned music hall. The small room occupies a cherished place in rock/folk lure as the potential scene of nascent greatness. Maybe that night you and your friends found yourselves packaged together like cigarettes in Seattle's Off Ramp Café on a drizzly Thursday evening while some new band called Pearl Jam played. There was that time I passed on going to see Alanis Morissette perform in our tiny college recital hall because I was studying for a punishing Euro-history exam.
"Are you sure?" asked my roommate. "I hear there's another guy on the bill too."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"
"Some guitar guy named Dave Matthews."
It's the truly unique experience of the club venue that sets it apart from an evening of Beyoncé's pyrotechnics in the arena or U2's enormous sound careening through the stadium. Clubs and listening rooms require much of the artists who are as exposed as dirty politicians in the close proximity between stage and audience. In trade, spectators in these spaces must submit themselves to a different type of aural etiquette, one that encourages less tweeting, more listening, less leaning back and checking out, more leaning forward and tuning in.
I recently had the opportunity get my small-venue fix with several shows by Wisconsin-based guitarist/singer-songwriter Willy Porter and singing partner Carmen Nickerson. Porter is a guitar virtuoso whose acoustic acrobatics often leave audiences both wrung-out and panting for more. An accomplished lyricist, Porter knows how to turn a phrase for comedic effect (the bawdy new tune "Fast Food Sex Sandwich" comes to mind), and how to open up the introspective spaces in a haunting breakup song like "What Became of Us." His connection with the crowd is easy, relaxed, and genuine, making the experience feel a little less like a show and more like getting to hang out with one of your favorite college buddies -- that is, until Porter unleashes his incendiary guitar picking. Then there is no mistaking that you are buckled in for an unforgettable musical ride.
The tiny venue complements Porter's highly engaging performance. It lends itself to the way he draws in his audience like light pooling around a solitary bulb, and it rewards the fan with intimacy and a giddy feeling of access. In the course of a week, Porter played Club Passim, the historic basement listening room in Cambridge, Mass.; One Longfellow Square, a mid-sized music club in Portland, Maine; and Londonderry, N.H.'s Tupelo Music Hall, a room made from the bones of a 19th-century barn that achieves high-end music quality with a small-feel atmosphere. Despite the differences in look, space, capacity, and location, every room invited the same kind of fellowship, the same sense of a shared journey into and through Porter's music. And each pathway was distinct, depending on the energy of both the space and the crowd. One Long Fellow was largely hushed, contented with less conversation from Porter and more deep grooves. The Tupelo veered just to the left of actual rowdiness, prompting Porter to deviate down the guitar rabbit hole with spiraling solos and wicked riffs. Porter's dexterity when it comes to reading a room, his ability to lean into its sweet spot and take a risk to honor that energy rather than stick to a reliable set list regardless, is a testament to his sophistication as a musician and performer, but it's also a factor that makes the small room so alluring: that feeling that anything can happen, and that you're somehow a part of it.
Supporting small venues (and you should support them, because they need our scratch to keep the lights on, the water glasses filled, and the scruffy sound dude paid!) means opening yourself up to the kinds of artists like Porter who might fall just outside the industry's stronghold (your loss, suits), and challenging yourself to participate in conscious music consumption, which is to say understanding that your presence in the room matters, shaping the show and fueling the artist. It's an agreement to experience music in a new way: slow-cooked and damn tasty.
Willy Porter and singer Carmen Nickerson at Club Passim (photo by S. Moeschen)