Roots Music

Originally published by DIG Baton Rouge on June 17, 2014. 

By Amanda Wicks

Welcome one and all to the Juke Joint Jubilee. Red Star bar’s new event is as lively as the name suggests, a musical romp involving a cast of local singer-songwriters. Much like the bar’s popular Trivia Nights and Bingo Nights, the Jubilee has quickly become a weekday staple full of surprises, camaraderie and homespun good times.

The entire concept started when Gabe Daigle approached local singer-songwriter Ryan Harris about playing on Thursdays, since Red Star didn’t currently have any event on the calendar. “Gabe branded the night,” Harris explains. “I’ve always wanted to use the term Jubilee, and Gabe ran with it.” The ‘Juke Joint’ component of the name stems from the fact that patrons’ cover includes discounted Tin Roof Juke Joint IPAs.

Initially, the nights included Harris, Clay Parker and Eric Schmitt, a trio that often played around Baton Rouge. The three guitarists complement one another’s styles, broadening the overall sound with their added instruments, as well as their ability to improvise over each other’s music. As Harris puts it, “If you think about it sonically, when you have three guitarists no one is leaning exclusively on you.”

Melissa Wilson, percussionist for The Wilder Janes, joins the three singer-songwriters at the Juke Joint Jubilee, adding the necessary structure to keep their playing cohesive. She also sings harmony against the men’s vocals. “These nights are more relaxed, and it’s nice to stay on one instrument,” she explains. Benjamin Moore who often sits in with the group says of Wilson’s role, “She’s the backbone.”

Schmitt played the gig for over a month before personal issues caused him to step down temporarily. Harris, Parker, and Wilson began inviting other local musicians to join them. Denton Hatcher, Benjamin Moore, and Jodi James have all added their talents to the Jubilee in one way or another.

Creatively, this kind of night breeds growth. Unlike other types of live music that feature one singer-songwriter playing their music, the Jubilee encourages and in fact relies upon collaboration. “It’s how we survive as singer-songwriters,” Parker believes. He describes the foundation as “roots” music. “Once you speak the language, you can speak it with other people.”

The night’s open to interpretation. On one particular Thursday past, two local brass musicians happened to be walking by and joined in for a few songs. The music quickly changed from the sweet if melancholic American folk to something you’d be lucky to hear taking place on the streets of New Orleans. It was sudden, it was unexpected, and it was some kind of wonderful.

Veronica Hallock, a local who regularly attends the Jubilee, finds that it and nights like it help Baton Rouge. “These nights are important for the city’s development. You can’t get this from any other city.”

Still, with a weekly gig that often involves the same people, how do the originals keep things fresh? “If it’s a drag for us, it’ll quickly become a drag for the audience,” Harris admits. “Creativity is what causes us to do this.”

While he allows that the group could fall back on popular covers for the audience’s approval, they choose to play their own music and to find new ways to play that music. “You’ve got to constantly push yourself. You can’t be opposed to learning.”

Moore echoes Harris’s sentiments, “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to contribute something.”

Moore sees how nights such as the Jubilee have already started inspiring other songwriter series. Chelsea’s recently began hosting Songwriters in the Round on Wednesdays, which borrows from the collaborative singer-songwriter nature of the Jubilee but takes it in a slightly different direction.

Parker laughs about the future of the Jubilee. “We have no idea what’s to come,” he says with an easy smile. While the night may have started by something of a happy accident, and the players don’t have a ready vision for its future, it’s clear by the growing popularity of the Juke Joint Jubilee that it’s brought something unique to the face of live, local music. What that will do to the likes of Baton Rouge isn’t entirely clear yet, but it’s an exciting listening journey.

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