It would be easy to mistake singer-songwriter Brent Kirby for a roadie. As he quickly strides into the Brothers Lounge, he carries a couple of amps. He has his shaggy grayish brown hair stuffed up under a tan snap-cap and wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for the Town Fryer, the now-defunct local bar known for its weekly alt-country jam sessions. (See Clubland for more on that topic.)
"These bass amps are always heavy," he says, nearly out of breath.
He brings in more equipment through the back door of the West Side concert hall and restaurant, and begins to piece together a drum set. Then he plugs in a variety of amps as he sets up the backline for 10 X 3, the weekly singer-songwriter showcase he hosts.
While the showcase normally takes place in the club's small wine bar, tonight is a special occasion — it's the one-year anniversary — and artists will perform in the larger concert hall as well.
Kirby models the event after off-night jam sessions he would attend when he lived in Nashville just over a decade ago. One such event was called 12 on 12, and it featured 12 bands playing the club 12th and Porter. Bands would play three tunes, and acts coming through town would sometimes sit in.
"The premise was to do something like that here," says Kirby. "I thought something cool could happen so we tried it, and it kind of took off. It wasn't hard to find ten bands a week and word got out quickly. The wine bar has a piano, which is a huge draw for some musicians."
As its title implies, the event features ten singer-songwriters playing three songs each. Two songs have to be original, and one can be a cover tune. Bands must sign up ahead of time at brentkirby.com, and then Kirby gives them a specific time slot.
"I didn't want people playing original tunes and then someone coming up and doing 'Sweet Home Alabama' and a bunch of covers," says Kirby. "I wanted to create a friendly atmosphere for original music. People see it as a good way to work on their performance."
While the event is ostensibly a showcase for singer-songwriters, Kirby doesn't exclude artists that don't fit the mold. This night's anniversary showcase, for example, includes Burning Down Broadway, a heavy band of young players that would probably fit better alongside the type of hard rock acts that play Peabody's. And the rootsy folk act Oldboy comes off more like the Decemberists than Ryan Adams.
Though Red Water Rojo's Jason Meyers (who subs for Kirby) hosts the wine bar stage, Kirby shuffles between the venue's two rooms and even finds time to sit in with eccentric singer-songwriter Larry Trupo. Kirby's new, unnamed band closes out the night and brings some audience members onto the dance floor with a rousing rendition of the Gram Parsons' tune "Ooh Las Vegas" that pairs Kirby with local singer-songwriter Rachel Brown.
A Wisconsin native, Kirby, who also fronts Brent Kirby & the Lost Fortunes, leads a Gram Parsons tribute act, and plays in the local roots rock act the Jack Fords, has become the face of alt-country in Cleveland since moving to town almost a decade ago and issuing his local debut, The Mean Days, in 2005. He's also part of the Ohio City Singers, the local group that plays original Christmas music during the holiday season.
Kirby issued his latest solo album, the John Prine- and Lyle Lovett-inspired Coming Back to Life, last year to rave reviews. Somehow, he manages to perform locally several nights a week while also running a guitar repair business out of his Willowick basement and hosting another monthly singer-songwriter night at Tremont's Prosperity Social Club.
While he's most readily identified with a host of local bar bands that play places like the Beachland and the Happy Dog, he's tried to extend 10 X 3 to a broad range of local musicians.
"I encourage everything," says Kirby. "We've had Egyptian harp. We've had pop and R&B and spoken word and all different sorts of acoustic music. To me, the diversity is great. We've had 14-year-old singer-songwriters and people who haven't played out of their living rooms in 20 years. My philosophy is that anyone who has written at least two original songs deserves an audience."