Songwriting is sometimes lost in the mix. While adding instrumentation is important to songs, when you get down to it the songwriting is the skeleton and without it, there is no song. Still, it is an overlooked aspect of music. In a world where people sing along to songs and have no idea what the words are, it seems that maybe people don’t care anymore, maybe lyrics don’t matter anymore.
Don’t tell the four song swappers that performed at The Bad Art Bistro on July 5th this. Four unique songwriters gathered on the outdoor stage on a breezy St. Joseph night to honor the sanctity of songwriting, each one with a style all their own. Andy Grooms organized the event and recruited Austin Marks from the quiet band Eyelit, Michael Coman who has been a local songwriter for years and Colby Walter who is commonly a backing member of bands.
The Bad Art Bistro was a great venue for this show. The stage built in an alley in-between two buildings was so well kept that it felt almost like it was indoors. Untamed trees showed themselves behind the stage and gently blew in the wind that switched directions as often as the songwriters would. Tarps would protect the area from the elements, although none of them would be threatening on this night. The brick walls on each side had most of the plaster coming off of them and looked like they had been swept clean, instead of covering up the age of the walls, it was embraced and cleaned; only adding to the ambiance.
The idea for the song swap was for each songwriter to play their turn in a rotation on stage. Some of the other players occasionally chime in with some impromptu additions to the singer’s songs. This wasn’t the great appeal of this event though. There would be a little bit of each player taking turns to solo but thankfully not much of it; the focus was where it should have been; on the songwriting.
The most interesting thing was the diversity of the writing in this small group. Andy Grooms took his John Prine style lyrics paired with a bit of Randy Newman style piano delivery to the stage and broke the ice. He worked as a hinge for the event because of his unique writing on the keyboards; his songs would be the easiest for others to join and many times and it was the easiest for him to add instrumentation to others’ songs as well. He would do some of his more well known songs like “Mississippi Parking Lot” as well as brand new songs like the heartbreaking “Pawn Shop.”
Austin Marks would experiment with loops as he played his electric guitar. He would casually add texture with it to other peoples songs in small doses too. His songs would have a more fragile quality than the other writers; it is almost like the songs he writes are made out of porcelain, to be admired but not to be handled too harshly. He would take on a few Eyelit songs like “She Holds His Hand Tight” and “I Wish You The Best” and even invite his wife and bandmate in Eyelit, Dansare Marks, on stage to sing a newer song that could have been pulled straight out of the Buddy Holly songbook.
Michael Coman would be next in the rotation and probably have the most distinct style of songwriting on stage. He would also seem to be very comfortable adding subtle licks of his unique peach electric guitar to the songs he wasn’t singing. His writing has a different bounce than anybody else’s song you will hear. Even on songs with a topic that is not very upbeat (like seeing someone that got hit by a train) the songs still have a bounce that keeps them from getting too heavy. A good example of this is “Season’s Greeting” about seeing his Aunt Mary put in the ground in a tin can, yet the song has a light pop hook. It almost seems like his songs are so light that they only touch the ground to propel themselves back up again.
Colby Walter would round out each rotation and his songs would have the most vintage feel of any of the four participants. He would contribute the acoustic guitar and mandolin to the show and even on one song would even flick a guitar pick near the mic to add percussion. Walter’s own songs are easily pegged with a heavy Bob Dylan influence and stick to many of the same subject matters. His vocals are high and very unique making for a pass/fail test of whether the audience likes his songs or not. They were displayed well here though, with a quiet, patient audience and rare opportunity for Walter to step into the spotlight every four songs. His original songs like “Every Song I Want To Live By” and “Old Love” (that was penned the same day his was singing it) proved that the musician who normally works as a sideman belonged on the stage with the other songwriters as much as anybody else there.
It was truly a night for people to listen to the lyrics and enjoy well crafted songs. This type of event couldn’t have worked in most venues but the Bad Art Bistro provided a very appropriate backdrop on this night. The audience was thankfully more interested in listening to music than running up their bar tab so there were few distractions and the quality of the songwriters on stage were the main focus. I wish it was the focus on more nights but maybe that is why this felt like such a special show.