The Listening Room ends monthly series

Not only did the Listening Room provide a quiet and focused environment for musicians and concertgoers, it also heightened the awareness of songwriters in the Richmond music scene and created a supportive local network.

The Listening Room had one rule – no talking during the performance. And it’s a rule that was never broken.

A problem with going to live music shows is that they’re usually in a loud venue and you can’t really focus on the music over the audience talking. Getting a crowd seeing live music to stop their conversations during a show is no easy task.

But the Listening Room made it work.

In 2009, organizers Jonathan Vassar, Chris Payne and a crew of friends and colleagues in the acoustic folk community wanted to create a live music series that would focus on the listening experience without all the noise. And with that, the Listening Room was born.

What followed was years of shows featuring local artists, but more importantly, the listeners started coming and created a community around the music.

And after more than four years of presenting live music in a quiet setting, the Listening Room is ending its monthly series. Tuesday, May 20 marks the last Listening Room show – its 48th installment – at the Firehouse Theatre and will feature the music of Vandaveer and Dogs on Main Street.

“We wanted to break on a high note,” organizer Jonathan Vassar says, adding that the Listening Room is “no longer a necessity” to the Richmond music scene.

“The original impetus to start the Listening Room was the Richmond CAPS crackdown of 2009,” Vassar said in his original Facebook announcement. “[co-organizers and fellow musicians] Chris Edwards, Chris Payne and I sought refuge in creating a series that would underline the listening experience. The Richmond music scene is now in a new place. Alternative venues are again on the rise – shows can be played outdoors, in houses, art galleries, record stores and studios without fear of reprisal. The arts community is thriving and the ‘think local’ community has never been stronger.”

“It actually frees us up to work on more shows,” Payne says. “Without the commitment of working on a monthly series, we can focus more on putting together a great show and promote it well.”

Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009 marked the first Listening Room show at the Michaux House, the basement room of St. James’s Episcopal Church and featured The Low Branches, Englishman and Ferdinand Thomas. The Michaux House was an open room, dimly-lit, with chairs circled around a simple, yet beautifully designed backdrop of leaves surrounding gramophones and small birds. String lights hung from the ceiling to create an ambient mood. There was coffee provided by Apropos Roasters and delicious sweets made by members and friends of the Listening Room crew.

Month after month, the music series brought in local and regional acts performing in an intimate setting to an attentive audience. Local favorites like Anousheh, Warren Hixson, Clint Maul, James Wallace and the Naked Light as well as guests from outside Richmond – like the amazingly talented Chris Kasper – all graced the stage. On one month, not even a snowstorm could stop the show. The event got so popular that it moved from the Michaux House to the Firehouse Theatre to accommodate more people.

There was never a cover charge for the Listening Room. It was all volunteer and donation-based. Listeners supported the series and happily donated to the event or to touring bands. The Listening Room always started on time – one of the few shows in Richmond that actually did. That made it a draw for most people – to the point where whenever it happened to start two or three minutes late, some regular goers would keep organizers in line.

It wasn’t just for a young crowd either. People from all walks of life from small children to older couples wanting a night out came to enjoy the show. There were the regulars who came to every show as well as the first-timers who were just there to see their favorite band playing. But it turned into a community regardless of who showed up. Friends would catch up, new people would meet and bonds would be formed over new music.

The event felt like home and everyone was welcome.
But when the music played, the crowd was silent, focusing intently on the performance. It was like stepping into a world of sound – the kind of world that music lovers dream of.

“My favorite performance was the night of Homemade Knives and Brown Bird [in May 2010],” Vassar says. “It was a Michaux House Listening Room, more intimate and cozy. We had coffee cake from Kendra [Feather, owner of Ipanema and Garnett’s] to accompany the Apropos coffee. That night I got to see my best friend, Wil [Loyal], play songs out in public for the first time since 2007 and the first time ever playing guitar. Brown Bird, of course, blew everyone away. They sounded like an orchestra.”

Not only did the Listening Room provide a quiet and focused environment for musicians and concertgoers, it also heightened the awareness of songwriters in the Richmond music scene and created a supportive local network.

“I think we’ve done a good thing bringing a community together that’s focused on the music,” Payne says. “We pushed people to hear new music. And we grew that credibility that people trusted us.”

At every show, Payne would say that the Listening Room experience was in two parts. One was the performer and the other, more important part was the audience. Without the audience, the series would be nowhere, he would always say before thanking everyone for coming.

But running a monthly music series can take its toll.

More than a year ago, Vassar and his wife Antonia, who had also been part of the original crew, stepped back from coordinating the series when they had a baby, leaving much of the responsibility to Payne and a few other crew members.
“Running a volunteer donation based monthly series is a lot of work,” Vassar says. “Booking the bands, working with the theater schedule, sponsor coordination, promotion, volunteer wrangling, not to mention ‘night-of’ work like setting up shop, hosting the bands and somehow making the sound work.”

But even with a smaller crew, everyone behind the scenes made each show look flawless.

“It’s a testament to their relentless dedication that the overall quality has been maintained,” Vassar adds.

Although the series is winding down, the Listening Room as an idea won’t be going away. The ‘Listening Room Presents’ series, created by Payne as an addition to the monthly shows, will continue as a pop-up show series in various venues and non-venues around town. There is already rumor of a Fall Line Fest appearance and there’s already a collaboration in store from organizers of the Listening Room and the people behind the Live at Ipanema series.

Vassar says the Listening Room will always be there for the Richmond music scene.

“Maybe when our lives settle down or if city needs it, it’ll come back,” Vassar says. “We need a Listening Room spotlight — y’know…like Batman.”


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Andrew Cothern

Andrew Cothern is the founder and editor of RVA Playlist, a music site that showcases events, concerts, album, show reviews, and opinion pieces that focus on the vibrant local music scene in Richmond.

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