Stars in the shed: Rapunzel's makes listening easy

The Jan Smith Band and Brady Earnhart
at Rapunzel's Coffee & Books
Sunday, February 1

Saturday night was my second time ever at Rapunzel's Coffee & Books in Lovingston, and I have to say that I love that place. All varieties of caffeinated concoctions are available at reasonable prices, the cover's never more than $5 for a show, and loads of books are available to entertain you while you dawdle– amazing! Couches, chairs, and seating arrangements of all kind are set up on show nights, all facing the cozy, but not too small stage-­ and did I mention it's in a renovated packing shed?

Last Saturday was no exception to Rapunzel's usually stellar line-up: the Jan Smith Band put on an exceptional performance, with folk musician Brady Earnhart opening. After I perused the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records for a bit while sound checks were done, Brady Earnhart took the stage. I had never seen Earnhart before, though I was familiar with his work as the impetus for the King of my Living Room CD-­ the live recording by many of Charlottesville's finest singer/songwriters.

Tonight, Earnhart was just a man and a guitar, sitting a little back from Rapunzel's expensive looking mic. His songs were a mixture of finger-picked and strummed folk, with shades of Simon and Garfunkle at some points, mixed with a songwriting style that reminded me a little of Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler (which is a compliment). His lyrics made many of us in the audience laugh, in spite of his self-confessed specialization in "depressing songs."

The Jan Smith Band was next, with only a small break in between the two acts. Smith was joined on stage by Tom Proutt on lead (acoustic) guitar, Jeff Vogelgesang on mandolin, and Joey Damiano on upright bass. The group has a full, rootsy sound that seems designed for Rapunzel's easy-going atmosphere. All the band members are accomplished instrumentalists, and Smith's breathy, relaxed Natalie-Merchant-mixed-with-a-little-Joni-Mitchell vocals are just icing on the cake.

Most of the songs the group performed were off Smith's 2002 release, Tin Heart, and sounded as good as or better than the recorded versions. It might have something to do with Rapunzel's old-style one-mic stage setup, where all the performers gather round it in a semi-circle– it makes for a communal experience between band members at least, and if everything is balanced well, the technique can sound great for acoustic instruments.

Some highlights were the song "Your Moma Don't Care," a slab of down-home pop with harmony vocals provided by Proutt and Vogelgesang, and the soft acoustic-pop song that gets stuck in my head for days, "Ionesco's Chair," which featured a nice mandolin solo by Vogelgesang. The mandolin player also got loud cheers for his virtuosity on a mandolin heavy tune of his own.

Two great bands, a great place to see them, just a great evening overall. I gotta get back there, ASAP.