Written by Chad Taylor
I've always liked the little space that the good folks at Java Joe's have carved out for live music. It is, however, a tricky space to utilize, due to the fact that its long, narrow seating configuration and questionable acoustics make it an easy space to overwhelm.
But Java Joe's has really hit upon something special with their Nashville Songwriter series, which is exactly what it sounds like: every month, the 4th St coffee house brings in acclaimed songwriters from arguably the most fertile songwriter city in the country, and sets them up on their small, black stage for a semi-intimate evening of music and storytelling. It's charming, effective, and entertaining.
This past week, the venue's latest edition to the series featured home-grown Iowa girl Sarah Darling. The Mitchellville native moved to Nashville in 2004 and, after signing with Black River Records, released two full-length country albums, as well as the EP “Home to Me," who's title single reached #34 on Billboard's US Country charts. Now an indie artist, Darling is working on a new album after having released her first independent single, “Little Umbrellas," in 2013.
So on this night, Darling took to the stage with the experience and background of someone who's been to Mecca and back, but with every bit of the charm of a small-town girl who'd made her way back home. The Nashville Songwriter series is a perfect use of the Java Joe's space, and Darling proved to be an excellent example of what the series is supposed to embody.
“Simplicity” was the word of the night. The space's stage itself is a simple affair; a raised floor backed by a black curtain. Darling and her musical partner Tyler Flowers—dressed in a black dress and flannel shirt, respectively—embodied a set that was equally unadorned, featuring some lovely harmonies and uncomplicated guitar work, while never threatening to get too big or loud for the space.
It wasn't a flawless show; the set was a little cover-heavy for my tastes, and Darling was powering through a head cold on this night, which caused her tone to falter in a couple of small spots. But she's clearly a powerful singer and talented songwriter, and it's really difficult for that much talent to not show through.
The audience—clearly filled with friends and family of the hometown girl—on the other hand, did its level best to overwhelm the space with half-baked, folksy charm. The assembled crowd steadfastly refused to clap on the proper beat unless directly guided there by Darling herself, only to wander off like confused children the moment Darling returned to her guitar playing. There was plenty of banter between Darling and the crowd (including one gentleman's completely un-ironic use of the pronunciation “gee-tar”), which can be a difficult thing for an artist to manage, when they know the people doing the bantering well. But Darling kept the set's flow moving well, and finished her set pretty much exactly on the hour.
The set was followed by a two-song encore, after which Darling mingled with the crowd out in Java Joe's larger public space.
When looking at whether a show as a whole works or not, there are a ton of factors beyond just the physical performance that can effect a person's enjoyment level. And for every venue in town that features haphazard booking, indifferent promotion or questionable sound, there are spaces like the one in Java Joe's and events like the Nashville Songwriter series that are veritable master classes in how things can all come together.