The door of the unmarked building sits at the end of a gravel driveway. It is haphazardly plastered with decals promoting local artists, musicians, and shops. The door opens directly into a dimly lit room with about 40 folding chairs facing a makeshift stage, which consists of a throw rug, a stool, a metal folding chair, and a microphone. A large fan oscillates in the corner by a dark-paneled wall. When the room is quiet, you can hear the fan whirring and the occasional squeak of wet sneakers on the cement floor.
The 30 or so people gathered there on a recent rainy Sunday night in September were enjoying the last R.R.A.T. songwriters showcase to be held at that location. The property is being sold, so the showcase will move to other venues.
R.R.A.T. is a local nonprofit group that brings songwriters to intimate, off-the-beaten-track venues in the Delaware Valley. This River Radical Art Team is a resurrection of the R.A.T. Art Gallery in Gardenville, which also promoted local artists and musicians.
Singer-songwriter Jesse Ketchel brings R.R.A.T’s mission to life by curating showcases featuring Delaware Valley songwriters — about 45 have performed since November — from various musical genres. Each event features a succession of musicians whose songs propel the evening forward to a showstopping display of powerful songwriting.
“The songwriter showcase has been instrumental in supporting a culture of local music,” said Shaun Ellis, a musician and frequent audience member. “I’m looking forward to seeing R.A.A.T. continue doing its valuable work long into the future.”
R.R.A.T showcases feature six musicians, each with a half-hour slot.
Those who know the Delaware Valley will often hear references to their beloved region. There are songs about tubing down the Delaware River and walking through the breathtaking Mount Hope Cemetery in Lambertville.
The September lineup included guitarists and a classically trained pianist. The youngest performer, 15-year old Jaiden Martineau, performing as Jydn, strummed his guitar as he crooned about love and faith.
The Hunterdon County teen effortlessly slipped back and forth between a pop-style sound and rapping and even brought out a kazoo, extolling the virtues of the little-used instrument.
Between sets, he joked that his love songs were all one-sided and admitted that it is easier for him to sing a song than to make a “move.” The audience good-naturedly suggested to him that his song is “the move.”
When Jydn mused out loud about why he felt compelled to write songs, fellow performer Julia Melito nodded her head.
Melito’s day job is as a school counselor in the Allentown City School District. Her set included deeply personal songs about topics like anxiety and heartache. To her, the showcase’s atmosphere creates “a safe space for me to share my art with others. I find new inspiration from performing.” Sometimes she even finds “hidden meaning beneath the surface of a song.”
Other performers echoed Melito’s sentiments, revealing that they play songs at a showcase that they do not usually play at “regular” gigs.
Songwriter Ed McGrath, an arborist from Feasterville, introduced one of his songs by saying, “Here’s one I never played in front of anybody except my wife.”
There was a palpable feeling of intimacy, respect, and support in the room as songwriters transitioned between being performers and audience members.
Surrounded by friends, family, and community, they candidly shared their passion and love for songwriting, as well as the struggle they sometimes face to continuously work on their craft through life’s challenges.
As songwriters took turns on stage, there was often a playful banter between sets. It was almost an ongoing dialogue of what songwriting is and why the songwriters are compelled to do it.
The September showcase was reminiscent of a 1950s coffeehouse where people gathered for music and social interaction. Time seemed to both slow down and turn back, creating the feeling of standing at the crossroads of an emerging culture.
Since each event has a unique vibe, one can only wonder where Ketchel will transport songwriters and guests in the future.
The next showcase is Sunday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Holistic Vibes, 1400 Easton Road, Riegelsville. Tickets will be available at the door for $10 cash.
For more information, follow the Songwriter’s Showcase on Facebook or Instagram.
Beth Zarret writes occasional columns about the people and places in her beloved towns of New Hope and Lambertville.