When Bloomington pedigree singer-songwriter Suzette Weakley, or "Stella" of local folk country favorites Stella and Jane, encountered the round-robin live music format while gigging at Nashville's illustrious Bluebird Cafe with Bobbie "Jane" Lancaster, she was enthralled. She saw no reason why she couldn't seed something similar back home.
And though Weakley says there were some initial misgivings on the part of some locals about a system in which a handful of musicians sit on stage and take turns presenting new material - not unlike second graders during show and tell - Bloomington's own version of round robin is in its fourth month and gaining momentum and a homegrown audience at a dizzying pace.
Held every Monday night at the Players Pub from 6 to 8 p.m. and called, appropriately enough, the Monday Night Songwriters' Showcase, the weekly event features four artists each show, drawing from a pool of about 46 local and nonlocal writers. Unlike a typical amorphous, clamorous hootenanny or open mic, the showcase is structured so that each artist takes turns performing in the two-hour period, working out to about six original, largely unadorned, pieces per person.
Audience and artists alike on these nights are reverent, hungry for musical occasions where the sublime outmuscles the prosaic and the sacred craft of original song in its rawest form prevails over bells and whistles and the latest flavor of cool.
On a recent Monday evening before the showcase, Weakley and her co-organizers and fellow featured writers Marc Haggerty and Dave McConnell, along with Player's Pub owner Greg Hill, sat down and talked about the success of the project thus far and their sanguine vision for its future.
Weakley, lit up with youthful energy and looks, asserts that the round-robin format offers a desperately needed alternative to the various other opportunities in the open mic genre around Bloomington. Aside from its emphasis on original music, the songstress says, the showcase structure keeps folks engaged.
"In some places you have one person playing for 45 minutes and everyone is cross-eyed and bored by the time it's over. But if you have four people and four different styles, it keeps everybody really interested."
Indeed, while artists on board with the project tend to lean acoustic, by no means is the line-up a monolith. Demographic diversity among the artists, as well as a wide range of musical styles, has characterized the showcase thus far. But Weakley admits that she and her partners are actively striving to add more of everything to the pastiche.
"We're always looking for more women," she says. "Right now we only have about six [Weakley included], and while they're great, we'd love to have more. Also, we'd like to attract more young people, and different styles of music, including more instrumentals, jazz and even hip hop."
When Haggerty, another of the project's core organizers as well as a familiar and esteemed figure among local singer-songwriters, voices his ambitions for the showcase, he does so as though repeating a holy incantation.
"We are trying to make Bloomington a place musicians aspire to come to rather than a place they aspire to leave," he says.
Haggerty, who also founded the Bloomington Musicians Association and is seeking to expand the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District's parameters to include live music, expands on his vision: "We want to make Bloomington the music destination for this part of the Midwest. Let Indy do the big-name concerts, and we build our own. We already have a reputation for exporting good musicians. Let's make a local Lotus Festival."
Co-organizer McConnell, whom many associate with his goth-laced acoustic roots band the Lopers, is responsible for scheduling and augments sound work done primarily by Tom Annese. The prolific songwriter does not seem to think Haggerty's goals are excessively lofty. "Bloomington has never had anything like this on a weekly basis, it's absolutely incredible," he says.
McConnell suggests that part of the showcase's allure is that it floodlights original live music in its most bare-bone form.
"It partly reminds me of MTV's Unplugged," he says. "The songs are stripped down to such an extent that it's more about the songs themselves than it is about the production."
He also observes that a spontaneous dialogue often occurs between featured writers on showcase nights, as well as interactions between the audience and performers, and that this sense of the entire event being a conversation makes it unique.
"It's extremely interesting to hear the conversations between the writers while they're on stage," he says. "They'll talk to each other about the songs, and you can get a lot of insight from just listening to them."
While all three core organizers of the Monday Night Songwriters' Showcase are excited about the ways in which the project brings their respective and collective dreams to light already, they are downright giddy about its future and want to extend an invitation to those either interested in being featured songwriters or active audience members to do so.
Pub owner Hill, without whose support the showcase would not exist, the facilitators agree, chimes in with his own take on the whole affair.
"What I'll say is that we've started something that's bigger than the place and bigger than the building, and it's an honor for me to just be a part of it," he says. "And it's going to get even bigger, so stay tuned!"
Lori Canada can be reached at .