Originally published online by SmilePolitely.com on November 19, 2014.
By Amanda Wicks
Every third Thursday of the month, audiences can find something different taking place at Mike ‘N Molly’s. Unlike other nights of live music, which typically feature anywhere from two to four bands, this night marks a quieter evening. It’s reserved for something more pared down and intimate: the Solo Showcase.
Isaac Arms, the venue’s booker, puts together the Solo Showcase. “In booking bands, I think part of my job is to throw a party, which bands are great for. I’m really also interested in the art of [booking],” he said.
For the Solo Showcase, Arms sees his role as a booker functioning differently, and part of that art he’s so interested in becomes a larger part: “I’m booking songwriters, and my initial goal was really to get people who normally don’t do it.”
Rather than bring together another night of live music featuring bands of all shapes and sizes, Arms purposely finds area musicians who don’t perform solo as often because they play in bands.
“For the Solo Showcase in particular, I noticed that there aren’t that many solo artists in town,” he explains. “We have a lot of guitar bands in Champaign. We have a rich history of that. There are people who wouldn’t normally take it upon themselves to perform solo.”
The act of singing alone onstage becomes a challenge for the musician, one that yields a deeper connection to the audience. “Music already sends a sort of indirect message. There are bands I’ve booked here who have very strong, powerful songs that say something that’s supposed to be direct and supposed to affect folks,” said Arms. In the melee of the night, though, that message may fall by the wayside. That’s why Arms believes in the Solo Showcase’s importance. By removing many of the distractions that tend to interfere with typical nights of live music, it emphasizes each song’s message. “I would like to invite folks to engage with the songwriting of this town. And the songwriters,” Arms said.
When musicians perform alone onstage it arguably produces a new kind of relationship between themselves and the audiences. “Maybe, just maybe, these songwriters are more accessible as people, physically, socially,” Arms said. “That’s the sort of interaction and engagement that I’m trying to cultivate.”
This Thursday marks the event’s fourth night. It’s still relatively new to the calendar, but it offers a breath of fresh air. Not only does it set the stage for the weekend, easing audiences into their weekend, but it also emphasizes just how diverse Champaign’s music scene has become. “I would like each showcase to have a different sort of slant,” said Arms. “The first one was ‘front men of rock bands who don’t normally play out solo.’ Then it was ‘let’s take advantage of this folk scene we have, and all of these unabashed singer-songwriters.’” For this next show, Arms said, “It’s mostly members of the punk community.”
Each Showcase features between four and six musicians, but Arms hopes to keep it around five. That way the night becomes more relaxed since it begins and ends earlier. “They can do shorter sets and there’s just enough time in between artists for people to get a drink or whatever,” Arms said.
The Solo Showcase might share a few underlying similarities to the concept of an open mic night, but Arms is adamant about the distinction. “This is not open mic. An open mic is where they would work on stuff. I am really trying to curate a bill, like I normally do at a rock show, but I’m trying to get folks who are ready to be, you know, billed,” he said. Arms has nothing against open mic nights, since he played several himself when he first moved to town, but he wants to build something that’s a bit farther along. “I think it’s important to respect that [open mics] are a battleground, it’s a training ground. The Solo Showcase, it’s a showcase. I’m trying to show off some of the best original songwriters in town,” he explains. “I’m trying to allow a more intimate space for these songs, and these songwriters. Let’s take some time to listen to the lyrics. Let’s take some time to experience these songs as songs.”
A wild Saturday night out with a fantastic local band doesn’t deter the kind of musical connection Arms seeks to emphasize, but it does promote a different way to listen and experience music. The Solo Showcase aims to be a quieter evening, where people can actually listen and find a more intense moment with each musician’s songs. When asked if people’s predilection to talk might get in the way, Arms shrugs it off. “It’s just natural. It’s physical,” Arms said of people’s respectful silence. “If there’s just one person on the stage and it’s not a full band with drums and subs coming at them, you’re not going to talk over that. If you’re talking over that someone in the room will say something.” He’s clear that he doesn’t police the room. “I don’t MC these events and tell these people to shut up. I’m not a librarian shushing people. I think the format does the work”
With the Solo Showcase alive and well, promoting local music in a new way, it seems as though it has a healthy future. Arms’ passion for the night and the experience it creates for everyone involved will certainly keep things moving forward. “It’s something I believe in. It’s important for this venue, but it’s also important for the area,” he said.