Newtown bar and music venue Leadbelly hosts a broad range of musical events in its cozy, conveniently located space. One such event that fits perfectly with the intimate vibe is monthly songwriters event "In The Round", where a group of four carefully chosen independent songwriters and singers come together, indeed in a circle, to share their music and discuss the stories and creative processes behind them.
Inspired by sessions at venues such as the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, every second Tuesday of the month Leadbelly audiences are treated to what is touted as "a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration" over an evening of music across two sets.
This month's edition, the 12th in the series, was hosted by Julia Johnson, a Sydney based award winning singer songwriter from Canberra who also plays an array of traditional folk instruments. We were treated to several numbers featuring her delightful auto-harp. Johnson offered a strong opening song that effectively set the mood and the bar for the evening and continued to gently but surely hold the show together with her modest manner and witty banter.
Our second performer was local artist Bonniesongs, who plays "dreamy experimental indie folk" with a captivating ethereal quality to her vocals and lighthearted mood to her conversation. Bonnie explained the stories and inspirations behind her songs, ranging from sparse landscapes and horse-riding to old Irish folk tales, all with grace and humour.
Katie Wighton of award-winning folk quartet All Our Exes Live In Texas was perhaps the most obviously professional performer of the night, revealed in her confident stage presence and powerful sound. It was lovely hearing her take the stage (figuratively speaking - as they were actually in the middle of the floor) as a solo artist and demonstrate her lush vocals and emotive lyrics. She too exposed us to some strong personal connections to the words and themes of her music when explaining each track.
Sean McMahon completed the group for the evening. McMahon is a Melbourne based songwriter and performer who describes himself as "a true believer in the song itself". With inspiration from the traditions of the American songbook, real world experiences, make believe and dreams, his songs tell stories to which you cannot help but be drawn. One such example was "Outsider Blues", a refreshingly honest. relatable story of a struggle familiar to many.
The four artists took turns singing solo songs, each with a preceding story about the song or the writing process. Sitting in the middle of the venue, in a circle facing each other, the audience was spaced out around the circle and above on the Leadbelly balcony. It was an interesting set up, as each performer could only face half of the crowd and vice versa, though added to the sense of intimacy in the venue as well as the feeling that we were spectators of a songwriter collaboration session, rather than a traditional audience.
Leadbelly's short but sharp food and drink menu kept listeners fed and watered, of note the 6-8pm happy hour that precedes every performance is well worth arriving early for, with half price pizzas of generous portions and $5 beers. It is an intimate space perfect for live music, particularly singer-songwriter and folk events like this one. We are curious whether the space could handle an acoustic (non-amplified) performance - perhaps it would be worth trying that at an In The Round 2019 event?
Concluding the night was a fabulous joint performance of a Fleetwood Mac cover, an absolute highlight of the evening. They shared solos and joined in harmony (an appreciated novelty for those who usually perform solo) accompanied by their range of instruments. We would have loved to have seen a couple more ensemble items like this.
Images: Sam Thomlinson