John Lamb, Published January 21 2014
The Listening Room concert series turns on artists by dialing down the crowd
For five years the Fargo man has been the driving force behind the singer/songwriter concert series The Listening Room.
He books the acts, hangs flyers, sets up the stage, lights and sound and runs the technical aspects during the show. When it’s all over, he tears it all down.
Even when he gets home, he’s still on the clock. In addition to giving the performers all of the money from the show, he provides room and board, hosting the acts in his family’s home.
He started the series as a three-year trial to provide a space where performers wouldn’t have to play above the din of a bar crowd. He then expanded it to five years and now sees an average of 25 to 30 people a show, though he’d like to see a steady 40.
“After five years, still it’s not where I want it to be,” Curfman says. “I don’t know what the future holds. I’m just in it.”
For the sake of the song
Curfman once had aspirations to be a touring musician. He started gigging in 1973 as a high-schooler and worked his way through college and seminary playing bars and restaurants.
He continued playing publicly until about eight years ago, most recently in Ugly Horse, a band that also featured his wife, Jane Millikan.
Still, he loved the experience of a great show, recalling his formative years at the Houston folk club, Anderson Fair, where he saw artists like Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith and her husband Eric Taylor, with whom he formed a friendship.
Thirty years later he brought Taylor, then on a career resurgence after being covered by Lyle Lovett, to Fargo-Moorhead but couldn’t find the right place for him to play.
Shortly after, he was meditating at the Spirit Room, a visit that not only opened his mind but also his eyes and ears.
“That was the first time I was ever there, and I thought it would be a real nice room,” he says.
The next time Taylor came back through, Curfman put the show in the Spirit Room and a match was made.
“It’s a good environment. Good energy,” Curfman says.
He says the Spirit Room has been a great partner, even offering him storage space so he doesn’t need to lug all of his gear up and down two flights of stairs before and after each show.
A sound experience
Taylor has become a Listening Room staple, but Curfman takes more pride in introducing new artists, like Drew Nelson from western Michigan, and Valley City, N.D., native Michael Whisler.
“I work at trying to bring in new people all of the time. I probably work harder at getting new stuff than instead of the same people,” he says. “When I get something people really respond to, I’d love to get them back.”
Curfman says the series and the space in the Spirit Room have received positive reviews from performers, specifically the acoustics of the space.
“I know what musicians want because I played,” he explains. “Singer-songwriters are putting something out there, and they don’t want to play if you’re not going to listen. It’s not a gathering place to visit with each other. We’re here for a performance.”
Word of the promoter’s dedication to the sound experience spread through the songwriter community, and Curfman has to sift through submissions to see who he wants to bring in.
The waiting list is so long that former Fargoan Josh Harty says he booked his show there this Friday eight months ago. He and Curfman have been trying to work out a return visit since Harty last played the room three years ago, a show that was booked a year in advance.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s putting that much time into booking,” says Harty, a road warrior who just returned to the United States a month ago after three-and-half months in Europe.
In Europe, Harty can get some bigger shows since there are fewer touring musicians competing. Playing a smaller gig in Fargo is worthwhile since Curfman gives all proceeds directly to the artists.
“The going wage for the average musician hasn’t moved in 15 years, if not more. Every other cost associated with it has tripled. So these kinds of gigs make the budget work out in the long term,” says Harty, who will release a new album this spring.
Bigger isn’t always better, Harty explains.
“You still have that closeness or intimacy that you don’t have in a giant room,” he says of Listening Room-type shows. “You can definitely be a little more into the song or express the song in a way that you meant it when you wrote it. It’s easier to have a conversation with the crowd through the music and through all of the interaction. That’s easier to do in a listening atmosphere.”
Small has its drawbacks, too.
Curfman recalls a time early last year when he was getting down about The Listening Room and not seeing the audience grow as he anticipated.
A small crowd means less money for the performer
“If it’s a poor show, that’s all they get,” he says.
But that’s not always true. Curfman has been known to dip into his own pocket if the crowd doesn’t show up like he thought they would.
“I’ve kicked in a lot,” he admits.
While he doesn’t take anything for the Listening Room shows, he does pick up odd jobs as a sound man, and those paychecks go toward The Listening Room. That pot has also been fed with Curfman’s plasma donations and the sale of most of his guitars after he quit performing.
And after last year’s blue period, his spirits picked up, buoyed in part by singer/guitarist Peter Mayer selling out 80 seats. Curfman squeezed in 13 more before he had to turn people away.
Viewing The Listening Room as a success has always been more about delivering a good experience rather than turning a buck.
“If I ever thought I’d make money, it would be a continual disappointment. You’d have to do it on a large scale to make any money off of it,” he says. “It’s not about numbers. If it feels good with 40 people there, you’ve had a good one. If the artist can have a good experience, a good show is hands-down.”
If You Go
WHAT: Josh Harty with Eric Addington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Friday
WHERE: The Spirit Room, 111 Broadway, Fargo
TICKETS: $12 donation with all funds going to the artists
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533