Songwriters In The Round, 2001

May 15, 2001

Julie Zacharias (from left), Melody Cox, Timothy Soden-Groves and Bill Isles perform in a recent Songwriters in the Round at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake, 805 E. Superior St. Isles is hoping to find a regular home for the sessions, which feature local singer-songwriters taking turns performing their original material. (Photos by Jessica Shold / News Tribune)

PERFORMANCE OUTSIDE THE BOX

RELAXED STYLE OF SONGWRITERS IN THE ROUND PUTS MUSICIANS IN THE MIDDLE OF AUDIENCE

By Chris Casey, News Tribune staff writer

When music flows in a circle, good things happen for both the performers and the audience, say several local songwriters.

During a typical performance, there is a separation between the artist (on a stage or stool) and the audience (in seats or at the bar).

But with Songwriters in the Round, that separation disappears. The songwriters cluster on stools around a table in the middle of the venue and the audience sits around them.

The new concert series was organized by local songwriter Bill Isles, who got the idea from an "In the Round" show he recently attended in a Nashville, Tenn., cafe.

"It was mesmerizing. The audience was enthralled," said Isles, who leads the Bill Isles Band. "As they recognized other writers in the audience, they would invite them up for a guest spot, giving up their chair for a turn. It was a great sense of community. It was something I knew we could do in Duluth."

Isles’ first Songwriters in the Round took place in early May at the Blue Note Cafe in Canal Park. Since then, Isles and typically three other songwriters also have clustered at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake.

A recent Tuesday edition featured Isles, Timothy Soden-Groves and Julie Zacharias and Melody Cox from the folk-pop band Crush. Sue Spencer from the Duluth Celtic group Willowgreen sat in for a song, as did songwriters Mel Sando and Amanda Martinez.

"It’s very relaxing," Isles said. "There’s a lot of good-natured teasing. We found that we would start a thread. If someone did a song about aging, then the next would do that if they had one. Or you would find something in their song that led you to one of yours."

Isles said the "In the Round" format was made popular at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville about 15 years ago by famed songwriters Don Schlitz and Fred Knobloch.

The opportunity to perform his own material in the manner it was created — sitting with a guitar — is what Soden-Groves enjoys about the format. He performed at two of the first three Songwriters in the Round sessions.

"I love being able to present my own music in just a stripped-down kind of uncluttered fashion," said Soden-Groves, who also performs in the folk-pop band The Loons and the Ayres-Groves Project.

"I also really enjoy the other singer-songwriters’ wonderful music and backing them up a little bit," Soden-Groves said. "There’s a lot of shared experience there. They have the same kinds of goals and satisfactions that we all share locally as musicians."

Julie Zacharias and Melody Cox (right), of the local band Crush, sing a duet as part of a recent Songwriters in the Round session at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake.

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During the round session at Sir Ben’s, Zacharias and Cox struck up a groove with Soden-Groves, who provided percussion on some of their tunes. The women invited Soden-Groves to join them for the next two Crush gigs, June 9 at Fitger’s Brewhouse and June 12 at Beaner’s Central.

Zacharias said she and Cox enjoyed their Songwriters in the Round debut.

"Generally, you’re up on stage and you’re kind of set apart from the audience," she said. "This time everyone was sitting around us and it was just a different, really relaxed feel."

The format encourages discussion about "the core of the song," Zacharias said, "and it really lent itself to the kind of music that we do with the harmonies and that kind of thing."

Local singer-songwriter Sterling Waters, who performed at the debut "In the Round" show at the Blue Note, has performed in similar formats on his tours across the country.

"This kind of keeps the audience’s attention . . . and you cover more ground as far as ideas or thoughts in songs," Waters said. "I think it offers more to the audience. And it’s good for the songwriters, too, because you get to see how other musicians play and put their ideas together."

Soden-Groves said the Songwriters in the Round concept will only strengthen an already high-quality and burgeoning Twin Ports music scene.

"It’s so unstructured and informal. It’s very fun and very free-flowing," he said. "I think it’s going to be well-accepted and people are going to look for it."

Isles, who is still looking for a home venue for the show, said Twin Cities artists will occasionally sit in on future "In the Round" sessions. The artists play for tips and get free beverages and food from the venue.

"There’s little money in it," Isles said. "It’s for the joy of doing original music."

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Here’s an earlier post with a photo of musicians at Sir Benedict’s in 1982.