Sometimes, it comes down to marketing. There’s a wealth of singer-songwriters in this town and plenty of fans that will head to a show by a local or national performer in the Americana tradition. But there’s just as many poorly-attended coffeeshop shows or audiophiles with worn-out 180 gram Dylan records that have never seen a local pick up a guitar.
This is where Cliff Snyder comes in. A textbook salesman by vocation, singer-songwriter by avocation, Snyder is trying to unite different parts of the music community through his new Indianapolis Songwriters Café, which kicks off Friday, May 16 with a show at Boulevard Place, and maintains a integral web presence www.indianapolissongwriterscafe.com.
The concept of presenting local songwriters in a round format is not new, but Snyder’s community-building approach and business acumen could help his new venture to thrive where others have failed in short order. Not that Snyder thinks he’s anything special. “I think the only thing that makes me qualified is that I give a shit,” Snyder says laconically.
Over the next three months, Snyder will host three songwriter-in-the-round shows at Boulevard Place Café that will feature some of the finest singer-songwriters Central Indiana has to offer, at least those in the acoustic guitar-slinging tradition. The round format is fairly intuitive: one songwriter sings a song or two, then hands the mic to the next fellow, then cycle through all present until a few hours have passed, or everyone is out of material. The round can bring out similarities and differences between performers and songs, and makes an impromptu accompaniment all the more likely.
Of course, a disadvantage of the round is that, if you really don’t care for one performer, you’ll have to sit through him or her throughout the night. But, that really shouldn’t be a concern with the line-ups that Snyder has booked. Frank Dean, a local fixture formerly of Sindicato and Blue DeVille will join blues guitarist Brent Bennett and Bill Price (often seen with his full band The Brains Behind Pa) for the first show.
June’s installment boasts a showing by Jason Wilber, just back from playing guitar with John Prine’s band and setting out on a solo tour, Stasia Demos (from Middletown) and Cara Jean Wahlers (bassist for the guitar-laden 19Clark25).
Finally, July will feature Kate Lamont and Doug Sauter from the chamber-folk group blueprintmusic, Greg Ziesemer (from the Spud Puppies, among others) and Snyder himself, who promises to sit in on his own series no more than two or three times a year.
Snyder hopes that these shows — chock-full of performers that have proved their mettle locally and nationally —will draw those unfamiliar with local songwriters or folk performers, offering an accessible entry-point to a potentially overwhelming subculture of house concerts and funky coffeehouses.
“I’m trying to make an accessible face for the songwriter community,” Snyder says. “I hope people can feel comfortable. They see this, maybe they do a Google search, find the website, maybe somebody tells them about it, whatever. If one of those people goes out to a show when they would have been sitting at home watching American Idol, mission accomplished. Right?”
The Songwriters Café website is an important element of Snyder’s mission to create a resource for the Indianapolis songwriters community, especially for neophyte fans and musicians. The site offers a community calendar that focuses on anything acoustic or songwriter-related, listings of local venues, promoters and press resources, and, of course, information on upcoming Songwriters Café events.
“If this resource had been there a few years ago when I was getting started with what I do, it would have saved me a couple years worth of bouncing around and asking and getting to know,” Snyder explains.
It was a bit of a coup for Snyder to get Frank Dean for the first Songwriters show. Dean has taken a two-year hiatus from performing live, with the exception of a few benefit shows. But two years is nothing for Dean: he’s been playing before Indianapolis audiences since the early ‘70s, when he made $2 and a pack of cigarettes for his first gig at the Patio. And even if he hasn’t been playing live, he’s kept busy, producing Brent Bennett’s upcoming full-length, It Must Be the Blues, and working alongside Bennett at a Franklin, Ind. guitar store.
“The reason that I’ve taken almost a two year retirement…is I got tired of there not being any listening places,” Dean explains. “That idea has never really caught on in Indianapolis, and I never really knew why; there was always an abundance of talent. If you go to the Bluebird in Nashville, Tenn., which is built around the same thing, songwriters coming in, you’re not allowed to talk. And there’s a lot of places like that. I always figure, if I come in with a drum, then it’s party time, and everybody’s there to shake their ass. But you get a couple guys coming in with an acoustic guitar, and unless they’re of the Jimmy-Buffet-pandering-to-young-lawyers-and-lovers type, then I think they deserve to be listened to. Obviously, I’m prejudiced about that, because sure, I want to be listened to.”
“I think great songwriting, and there’s plenty of it around, it’s like literature; it transcends rock and roll, or folk, or Americana,” Dean continues. “Sadly, maybe we haven’t been listening to much of it for the last decade because maybe there hasn’t been that much of it.”
Jason Wilber, a singer-songwriter hailing from South central Indiana, is no slouch when it comes to encouraging and advocating for fellow singer-songwriters. His radio show In Search of a Song, which spent a year on 1370 WGCL AM in Bloomington, and will return from a hiatus with Internet-only broadcasts later this year, gave the listener a chance to eavesdrop on conversations between Wilber and other artists about a songwriter’s creative process.
Wilber, who will perform at the Café on June 20, shares some of the same concerns brought up by other performers when asked about the Songwriter’s Café. “I applaud any effort to strengthen the singer-songwriter community,” Wilber explains. “Although, I think it’s the audience that needs to be gathered and developed. We have plenty of talented artists in Indy. The shortage is in event attendance. So hopefully the ISC will help gather and build an audience who enjoys singer-songwriters.”
Snyder says some local promoters and music enthusiasts were valuable as sounding boards while putting this series together: Cary Fields of the Fields of Bluegrass radio show and house concerts series; Nora Spitznogle, writer for NUVO and the Broad Ripple Gazette, erstwhile manager of CATH Coffeehouse and a booker at Indy Hostel and elsewhere; Rhonda Thomas, Indianapolis coordinator for Nashville Songwriters Association International; and Robin Coleman of Segment of Society promotions.
Since Coleman arrived on the scene in fall 2004, shortly after the folk-music destination CATH shuttered, she’s become a valuable resource for folk, folk-rock, bluegrass and acoustic traveling musicians looking for a place to play.
“With Segment of Society, why I call it that is because I feel like for a lot of artists, even independent folk artists, there’s different cultures or mixes of people,” Coleman explains. “Music has a way of bringing people together. Without even thinking about it, people dig a song that they wouldn’t think they’d ever hear. I book a lot of lesbian artists. I had Rachel Sage play, she’s coming back in June and she’s really out and all that kind of stuff. There were like five straight people that showed up just out of the blue. If people take that chance, they might have a good time.
Snyder could have picked a larger venue than Boulevard Place Café, a small deli/coffeehouse in the Butler-Tarkington area that’s featured folk music since opening (including a slew of Segment of Society shows). But he wanted to establish a listening room environment and an intimate space where performers and artists can truly commune.
“To tell you the truth, this whole thing’s a stab in the dark,” Synder summarizes. “But the end-goal of this thing — the website, the monthly shows and anything else I do down the line under this umbrella name — is to have two things happen: to have more people out doing original acoustic material and songwriterish material, and have more people connected with these artists and out at shows.”
WHAT: Indianapolis Songwriters Café
WHO: Frank Dean, Bill Price, Brent Bennett
WHEN: Friday, May 16, 7 p.m., $5, all ages
WHERE: Boulevard Place Café, 4155 Boulevard Place
See www.indianapolissongwriterscafe.com for details about upcoming months.