With a bevy of inviting couches and chairs and a BYOB policy, the Red Dragon Listening Room has quietly created an intimate music venue that encourages … wait for it … listening.
“We want to be respectful to artists,” says owner Chris Maxwell. Musicians feel that respect from the moment they enter Red Dragon. They can play their music for rapt audiences eager to hear rather than socialize during the show.
The Red Dragon is perhaps most famous for its weekend shows featuring traveling names, but Wednesday recently became the go-to night for local music. The venue began holding a singer-songwriter night, a project that Rob Chidester of Royal Cyclops Productions cultivated over the past two years.
Chidester began the Local Songwriters’ Showcase to help spotlight regional talent. Originally, he hosted the event at smaller bars in town, but as the show grew in popularity he realized he needed more room.
Luckily, Maxwell was in the crowd one night and approached Chidester about holding the event at the Red Dragon. “I’m always looking for other people who are as passionate about music as we are,” Maxwell says. The first Local Songwriters’ Showcase at the Red Dragon kicked off in early November.
Chidester approaches each Wednesday night a little differently than a typical music gig, realizing the problems many songwriters encounter in other venues. “They become the aquariums,” he says. “They’re in the background.”
Every Wednesday night show features three acts, each one building slightly in length. Chidester always opens and plays two or three songs with friends and local musicians, such as fiddle player Doc Chaney or guitarist Bill Romano. A local musician serves as the second act, playing three to five songs, and a well-known local or regional songwriter plays the third and longest set.
“It’s an approach to music as theatre,” Chidester says of the format. “Each set has to build like a drama in order to keep audiences interested.”
Rather than let musicians play on forever, the shows run 90 minutes, emphasizing the importance of time, pace and energy. “He always leaves them wanting more,” Maxwell says.
Local singer-songwriter Peter Simón of Minos the Saint headlined the showcase in late November. “The audience was really open to my music,” he says, adding that the venue had much to do with sustaining their interest.
Chidester and Maxwell see the showcase feeding into the other projects they each have around town, including Maxwell’s new Red Dragon Songwriter Series at the Manship Theatre (see below). Chidester hopes his project will elevate the Baton Rouge music scene by exposing residents to the local talent and promoting attention over distraction.
Soft-voiced songwriters and guitar-worn hands have found refuge for years at the Red Dragon Listening Room.
The unassuming, not-for-profit venue has lasted for a decade just on word-of-mouth promotion.
“We’re so underground, sometimes people who have heard of us don’t even have any idea what we do until they come out here,” says owner Chris ?Maxwell.
With such an indie foundation, the decision to approach the Manship Theatre five months ago about a concert series in 2014 may seem like an unlikely move. But Maxwell is confident the bigger venue won’t lose the intimacy found within Red Dragon’s cozy walls.
“Red Dragon is the kind of place where you can hear a pin drop during a show. You can feel the feeling and hear the words,” Maxwell says. “There are two places I’ve been where you can sit and listen to every note: Red Dragon and Manship.”
The Red Dragon team has wanted to take on this series for years to bring bigger acts to Baton Rouge for an up-close and personal show. Beginning this month, that grassroots campaign expands to the Manship stage with performers like Billy Joe Shaver, Jimmy Webb and Joe Ely.
Even with more big names in the works, Maxwell hasn’t forgotten local musicians. Each concert in the Manship series will open with a set by a local musician handpicked by Maxwell.
The goal of the series, Maxwell says, isn’t to leave behind the idea of a small concert, but to bring the feeling of a small concert to the next level. For Red Dragon, the music is everything.
“We may not know much,” Maxwell says. “But we know good songs.” –Kaci Yoder