Collaborative Sounds

Originally published in print by City Social Magazine in their November issue.

By Amanda Wicks

Since its inauguration in January, Drop the Needle has become an unexpected and unforgettable night of live music in Baton Rouge.

Held monthly at Baton Rouge’s popular restaurant, Chelsea’s, Drop the Needle aims to emulate the very particular nature of listening vinyl requires. Vinyl demands a different type of attention. It’s not the easy skipping around so often accomplished with CDs, nor is it the quick attainability of MP3s.

The night brings together the area’s best local musicians, who play a classic album from start to finish. The event started with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and later featured Carole King’s Tapestry, The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, Waylon Jenning’s and Willie Nelson’s project Wanted! The Outlaws, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Neil Young’s Harvest, John Prine’s self-titled first album, and The Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet. “I like to find an album people loved in their teens,” host Rob Chidester says.

Even though the event involves music covers, Drop the Needle emphasizes originality. Chidester explains, “I want to encourage individuality.” The whole point is to play an album that audiences love, but in such a way that showcases the groundswell of original musical talent in Baton Rouge. Liam Catchings of local band Liam Catchings and the Jolly Racket believes, “It’s better than a regular tribute show because instead of jaded players that have been doing covers 10 times a week for years on end, you’ve got hungry and active original artists that bring freshness and energy to the material. Everyone rises to the occasion.”

When Chidester invites, for example, local singer-songwriter Clay Parker to play Drop the Needle, he fully anticipates that Parker will do a song his way. Parker’s distinct picking style and lilting twang bring a folksy rendition to well-known songs. “I know I can do a certain thing with Clay and it won’t sound like the album,” Chidester explains. He approaches each musician in a similar fashion. This isn’t a night of playing an album simply for the sake of covering it. It’s about allowing local talent to find a way to pick apart the audience’s most beloved songs and re-stitch them in a way that breathes a fresh listening experience into the music.

John Smart of Righteous Buddha has taken part in three Drop the Needle nights, and he attests to the night’s unique blend of original talent with well-known songs. “We don’t regurgitate the album like a live cover band, but at the same time we do want to keep the album feeling familiar,” he says. There’s a balancing act involved. It’s important to keep the album’s structure because the audience knows the songs and has a connection to them. Yet, equally important, is how the musicians get to put their own spin on the music. “You want to put your own personality into it,” Smart says, “but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

That personality comes across both in who takes part in each Drop the Needle, as well as the ways in which they perform the songs. For the Nebraska show, Chidester had a specific vision for Springsteen’s last song, “A Reason to Believe.” “I wanted it to be a New Orleans funeral. It starts out as a dirge and it builds up to a celebration,” he explains. Local singer-songwriter Steve Judice led the song, which quickly turned into a gospel rendition.

The magic that audiences feel by listening to such unique takes also translates to the musicians playing together onstage. Oftentimes, the musicians involved haven’t played with (or even possibly met) one another. So the night breeds new bonds, which furthers the growing musical environment of Baton Rouge. Catchings says, “It’s a great opportunity for members of Baton Rouge’s killer music scene to come together in ways they normally might not.”

Chidester’s theater background serves him well in how he produces each Drop the Needle. Parker explains, “Rob is very intentional about who he gets to play songs.” Chidester agrees, saying, “I have a vision for every song, and that extends to how people look on stage together.” But that doesn’t mean the event gets campy. Chidester doesn’t want participants to mimic, do karaoke, or dress up from the era.

“Everything is an event,” Chidester says. “It’s special.” Unlike other live music events that tend to follow the same format, Drop the Needle presents something different each time. Missing one show means missing a lot. “I’ve had people come out to, say, the second show because a relative was in it and they’ve been back to every one since. And each time they tell me, ‘That was the best one yet,’ because we continue to top the last show,” Chidester says.

Still, Chidester doesn’t always run the show. If he isn’t as well versed in an album, he has no problem bringing in outside help to augment the production. Local musician Ryan Farris oversaw the Muswell Hillbillies show, and brothers Liam and Ben Catchings handled David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust in September. Chidester wants to find people with an affinity for and understanding of the album so they can find noteworthy ways to perform the music.

Even though the albums featured for every Drop the Needle tend to fall under the “classic” category, Chidester attracts a diverse audience in terms of age and background. People of all ages come out to listen. In fact, Drop the Needle has quickly exceeded standing room only, becoming one of the area’s most popular musical events. Beginning in November, the event will take place at the Hartley/Vey Theatre in order to accommodate the turnout. The show will feature The Beatles’ White Album.

It’s a unique take on a classic idea, but at the core Drop the Needle is about individuality finding common ground through music. For vinyl lovers and classic album fans, it’s a night of listening well worth the attention.