About 100 people are gathered in the dark basement of the Fremont Abbey Arts Center—not a bad turnout for a cold Tuesday night—and everyone is giggling and singing and waving their hands in the air. From behind an electric piano, Late Tuesday singer Tara Ward leads the enthusiastic crowd in a joyous sing-along of the Flight of the Conchords song "The Tape of Love (Sticky Stuff)." It's exactly the kind of unexpected moment Nathan Marion wanted to inspire when he founded the Round nearly three years ago, after growing bored of going to rock shows.
Since 2005, the Round has been quietly operating in the shadows of Seattle's vibrant music community. Originally, the monthly series happened pretty much anywhere he and his volunteers could find a space—the Bathhouse at Golden Gardens, Nectar, even a private backyard. This February, the Round finally settled into a permanent home in the basement of the newly remodeled Fremont Abbey Arts Center, where Marion works, and the project has also branched out to other cities, including Portland and Tacoma.
But as the venues changed and the Round began to grow, the project's mission has stayed the same: to create a warm, inviting space for musicians, painters, and writers to come together and share their talents with an intimate, open-minded audience—and to embrace the surprises that may result from such an equation.
The way it works is simple: Each month's installment features three musicians (they're welcome to bring a small backing band if they wish) who take turns performing one song at a time. There are no rules or expectations—local songwriters use the night to test out new material on acoustic guitar or piano, cover favorite songs, invite their fellow musicians to jam, or take requests from the audience. It's unpredictable and unscripted.
"On paper it sounds like the most uncomfortable experience possible," says guitarist Eric Howk of performing at the Round. "Everyone up onstage the whole time, no real rules or organization. But it works! And it is comfortable. It's really fun watching this thing that we were all a little unsure of come to life so naturally."
The same evening as Ward's Flight of the Conchords sing-along, John Van Deusen, frontman of local trio the Lonely Forest, surprised the crowd with a stellar acoustic guitar version of XTC's "Statue of Liberty." Neither of those moments would ever have happened at an average Late Tuesday or Lonely Forest show.
After a round of songs, there is poetry. I know what you're thinking: "slam poetry, ugh." It is definitely an acquired taste, but Marion works with Denise Jolly of Youth Speaks and Seattle Poetry Slam to find some of the city's best talent—the performers (including Buddy Wakefield and one of Marion's favorites Danny Sherrard) are always at least tolerable if not surprisingly enjoyable.
While all of this is happening, a couple of painters diligently dab at their canvases on the side of the stage. The audience can watch the painting take shape over the course of two hours, and if they like what they see, the work is generally available for sale after the show.
It's a simple idea, to fill a room with all different kinds of art—music, poetry, painting—but it's one that doesn't exist anywhere else in the city. If the Round wasn't done well, it would be a free-loving clusterfuck of open-mic clichés. But Marion keeps it from looking like amateur night by bringing in strong talent and big personalities—past performers have included local stars Howk, Mark Pickerel, Damien Jurado, Shane Tutmarc, Jon Auer, Jen Wood, and Robin Pecknold.
"I do work hard to curate the artists involved, so that they will have a good energy onstage and hopefully some playful camaraderie," says Marion. "It's definitely a challenge to find three songwriters who know each other and will make for an intriguing performance, but most of our artists come in through word of mouth. We rarely book someone based on e-mails or press kits."
For now, the Round still remains a Northwest secret. But in another three years, Marion's baby could be a national institution—one that'll hopefully keep music fans from having to suffer through one more boring, run-of-the-mill open-mic night.
"The concept is definitely spreading to other cities," says Marion. "We have had two Rounds in both Tacoma and Portland, and there's interest in Vancouver, BC, and Nashville. I just heard our first East Coast Round is happening next month in Lebanon, Pennsylvania!"
The Round celebrates its third anniversary on Tues June 10, the Fremont Abbey Arts Center, 8 pm, $7–$12, all ages. Performances by Laura Gibson, Scott Erickson, and Ben Katt.