By BRUCE DENNILL
Alexandra May’s Writersround /Rumours Rock City / Randburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
There are a number of ways to enjoy live music, and just as wide a range of listener tastes. For some, the buzz and scale of a stadium of a stadium show. Others like a festival, with its craft beer trucks and mud, and others still prefer the local pub, where smoke, televised sport and constant chatter compete with the artists for precedence.
All of those contexts tend to favour acts with more capacity for volume – bands, often – or, in terms of the venue owners, certainly, musicians with a repertoire of popular cover versions. Singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars and original music are somewhat under-catered for, which is fair enough from a profit-making perspective, if that music, unrecorded and unreleased for the most part, is thus far only familiar to the performer’s immediate family and most loyal friends. This scenario, sadly, creates a cycle that generally sees many singer-songwriters – particularly the more introverted types – permanently seeking a platform that will allow them to at least play their songs, and better still, allow them to develop their craft.
In Nashville, home to scores of music venues and temporary host to thousands of hopeful future stars, such platforms are common, and the system used there is simple and effective. Any songwriter with a guitar and a couple of composition can join writers rounds – cosy, informal events where applicants are seated alongside each other on a stage and given the chance to run through one song at a time for a couple of rounds before being replaced by another handful of colleagues. It’s a format that allows not only exposure for new talents and their latest work, but also for networking and inspiration that can, and often does, result in fruitful collaboration.
Such was the experience of Johannesburg-based pop and country singer-songwriter Alexandra May, who spent some time in Music City earlier this year and, inspired by that trip, has transplanted a version of the idea in Randburg’s Rumours Rock City venue. It’s a vivid, incisive response to the lazy “There are not enough venues” moan, and the response to her initiative supports the suspicion that there are a great number of largely undiscovered performers who appreciate not only the opportunity to share their compositions but the atmosphere in which they are encouraged to do so.
Twelve artists on a single weeknight bill should by rights be a mess of egos, styles and intent, but at the Writersround (May’s curious word blend) on 10 September, the overwhelming tone was of support and interest in the others’ work, with creative alliances already starting to bloom around tables after completed slots. The presentation also fosters sustained interest from the audience, as the worst case is scenario in which some of the songs simply don’t work as well as others. But because writers only showcase one song at a time and there are only two in total, there is no sense of being subjected to a set, but rather of having an absorbing live mix tape spooled across the stage, and on this occasion, the standard was extraordinary – 24 strong songs out of 24, with a smattering of extra quality in the off the cuff open mic session that follows.
Artists frustrated by the brevity of their individual slots need not be, as the events are held regularly (every two to three weeks at the moment), and for the purposes of keeping returning audiences – and themselves – engaged, playing two different songs at each opportunity makes sense. And even inexperienced writers are bound to have at least a handful of songs by the time the step behind the microphone.
For both music fans desiring a space in which they can sit and actually hear the lyrics and distinct parts of the songs they’re listing to (incidentally, the sound in the smaller of Rumours’ two rooms is excellent) and performers wanting their music appreciated in that way, these Alexandra May’s Writersround are a boon. Expect them to be the first rung on the ladder to success for a number of upcoming composers.