—David Menconi, Down on the Copperline
So much music-listening in the modern era happens at a distance. And while it can be cool, there’s still something bloodless about online livestreams or hearing a big-name act from the upper-level seats of a big arena. If all that leaves you in the mood for an experience that’s more up-close and personal, Jonathan Byrd has got an event for you. “Third Thursday Songwriters Showcase” will, as advertised, happen the third Thursday of each month beginning on Jan. 19, 2023. Each month’s show features a rotating cast of guests appearing with Byrd in an all-acoustic, microphone-free format in which they trade songs and stories and even entertain questions from the audience.
A veteran Chapel Hill singer/songwriter, Byrd will be host and ringleader of a regular monthly series that commences in January at Eno Arts Mill in Hillsborough.
“This started from another series I was doing with a similar idea, three songwriters in the round,” says Byrd. “We started off planning to use a stage and a sound system. But the very first night, after doing soundcheck on this stage they’d set up, I had an idea. ‘You know what,’ I said, ‘I appreciate all that. But we’re gonna try something different, put our chairs on the ground and just play acoustic instead.’ We did, and it was just magical.”
Eno Arts Mill emerged as a fitting venue after Byrd and Jess Klein put on a songwriter workshop there last summer (and are hosting another in February). Byrd, of course, is an old hand at conjuring up cool vibes from unconventional performance formats. Where most musicians struggled during the big virus pandemic shutdown, Byrd and his backup band The Pickup Cowboys passed through it in style with the “Shake Sugaree Americana Residency” – a weekly online livestream that originated from The Kraken roadhouse in Orange County.
“Most residencies like this are in places like Toronto, Nashville, New York,” he says. “But there’s such a strong scene around here and I wondered if we could do the same thing. I did not expect The Kraken to be as successful as it was. That started out as just trying to make a little money and keep the band tight before we could get back out on the road. But it got so good, I finally told my agent I never wanted to be gone mid-week anymore because Wednesday night at The Kraken was working so great.”
Once the pandemic ebbed enough for in-person shows to resume, Byrd’s weekly Kraken crowds were a mix of faithful every-week regulars and newcomers, with a wide diversity of types – “college professors, farmers, young, old, Black, white, Hispanic, everybody,” he says. Byrd is hoping for a repeat of that with the new Third Thursday series, drawing from a wide range of performers.
“As a songwriter, it’s easy to get pushed into the ‘folk’ genre all the time regardless of what kind of music you’re writing,” Byrd says. “The folk world is ostensibly left-leaning, liberal and into diversity and inclusion, but the crowds can be awfully old and white. So how can we address that? Part of it will be having a diversity of people onstage, trying to bring communities together. That’s where the best conversations in American music happen. Jazz, country, rock and roll came out of that. Put all these different communities together and that’s when cool things happen.”
The acoustic format also calls for a large measure of attention, concentration and discipline from audiences as well as performers. “It’s informal enough that I hesitate to call it a ‘show,’ but this sort of presentation has been mostly limited to house concerts or around campfires,” Byrd says. “It’s a really special way to invite the audience into the art. Nothing is between us and them, there’s nothing to stop anybody in the audience from asking questions about a song. They’re as loud as we are. But that also forces them to hold a magical silence and intimacy for the songs to be heard by everyone. The combination of those things creates a certain kind of magic that’s very old. Primal, even.”
Jonathan Byrd’s “Third Thursday Songwriters Showcase” debuts on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, at the Eno Arts Mill Gallery, 437 Dimmocks Mill Road in Hillsborough. Showtime is 7 p.m. and tickets are $25 per person.