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Songwriters create venue where you can hear the songs

Darrin Wentz has a song to sing, he's just looking for the right place to sing it. The Fargo musician is trying to establish a listening room, an ideal venue for singer/songwriters like himself. He teams with fellow singers Josh Harty, Donny Vose...

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Darrin Wentz has a song to sing, he's just looking for the right place to sing it.

The Fargo musician is trying to establish a listening room, an ideal venue for singer/songwriters like himself.

He teams with fellow singers Josh Harty, Donny Vosen, Eric Addington and Keith Axtman for a songwriters showcase tonight at the Avalon Events Center.

"Locally there are a lot of performers, especially singer/songwriters, that don't get a venue where people can really hear the music," Wentz says. "For me, it's important to hear original music and not fight the bar crowd to do it."

The 36-year-old started playing shows in 1988 and over the years noticed growing acceptance for solo acts like himself. What he didn't see were places where a performer wasn't competing with the din of a bar crowd or coffee shop.

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"There are karaoke bars that used to have live music," he says, lamenting the loss of paying nightclub gigs. "Now you're lucky if you get $20 and a cup of coffee."

For Wentz the ideal listening room would be big enough for 200 music fans to comfortably watch performances. As much of a place for music fans, it would also be a home for musicians to try out new material on each other.

"This is somewhere between an open mic and a show all your own," Wentz says. "It's more than an open mic, but not a show you have to carry all on your own."

He points to nationally known clubs, like The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tenn., or La Zona Rosa in Austin, Texas. These spots often feature similar songwriter showcases and the Bluebird has released a series of live recordings, including a 1995 set featuring Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

Wentz thought he had found the right spot in the Ultra Lounge, the former Moose Lodge ballroom. But when the Moose shut down shows, the troubadours hit the streets looking for a new home.

Three doors up from the former Moose Lodge, Babb's Coffee House draws a crowd on Fridays with a string jazz session.

"It's as much of a jam as anything," says Jim (City) Sitte, the evening's host.

A return of the mid-1980s phenomena that took place in what is now The Bison Turf, Sitte welcomes guitar, mandolin and banjo players to sit in and pick the strings as well as poets and other free spirits.

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The tone at the songwriters' session is more structured. Each performer gets two three-song sets.

Vosen, a Brainerd-based musician who is a regular at the songwriters' showcases, says coffee shops don't offer the right environment.

"Coffee houses are for conversation," he says. "It's just respect for the art."

Vosen says the catch phrase at the Bluebird is "ssshhh."

"If you're talking, the first time they'll come up to you and ask you to be quiet. The second time they'll ask you to leave."

Harty puts his finger directly on the problem with coffee houses.

"There's always the espresso machine going off in the middle of a song," Harty says.Wentz says the goal of the shows is not to make money, but to create a momentum so these events can happen on a semi-regular basis.

He hopes to encourage other performers to take the stage at the next show, but stresses that this is not a talent show.

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"This is about the craft of songwriting," Wentz says. "We don't care how you present your music."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

What: Songwriters in the Round

When: 8 p.m. today

Where: Avalon Events Center, Fargo

Information: (701) 232-1336

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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