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Deep within the cavern of office buildings and mega-stores that is Financial Centre Parkway in West Little Rock sits a squat music venue called Studio Joe, anonymous to all but a few.
Well, not totally anonymous. If within the past two years you have visited the Sports Authority, you've seen it from across the oversized parking lot. Maybe you've stumbled across it after a missed turn en route to LifeWay Christian Stores or the Barnes and Noble that sits atop the hill across Autumn Road. Or perchance a post-Purple Cow perambulation has brought you past its door.
And perhaps, like me, you thought it was a hair salon, neon beer light notwithstanding.
All of which is to say that the joint has something of a marketing problem, one fully acknowledged by co-owner Rob Barrow. “I made all the classic mistakes,” Barrow said when I spoke to him, along with co-owner Dave Shurgar and manager Mike Nelson, before a recent Thursday evening concert. “I put all my money into the place and didn't have enough for staff or advertising.”
But what a weird, wonderful place it is. And it's not just a concert venue. We were talking in a control room stacked with high-quality gear — a mixing board, computers, speakers. The musicians' recording room, well-equipped with instruments, was visible through a window. And through a window on the other side of that room was a stage, lounge and bar, complete with bar stools, leather couches, coffeemakers of all sorts, and a sofa constructed out of an old bathtub. Once you've taken in the place's ramshackle charm — like the ladders in the men's room — it begins to feel like you've entered someone's dream basement. Albeit one that poses a challenge in characterization.
“The venue is the studio,” Barrow said.
“It's a studio with a liquor license,” Nelson retorted.
It hasn't always been that way. In 2007, Studio Joe opened alcohol-free — the name came from the strongest brew at the bar — after six months of construction work by Barrow and Shurgar. Friends since their early days in Helena, the two were ideally matched to open the business. Barrow, who strikes a sardonic persona, came up with the idea and was the operation's “big moneybags,” as he called himself. By his own account, he has been a lawyer, a sailor in the Navy, and finally a doctor, his current day job. Shurgar, who comes across as friendly and open, was the tech wiz who set everything up.
Barrow had a straightforward vision for the place: It would be a comfortable gathering spot for all music lovers and musicians. It would be an attempt to bring a coffeehouse performance scene to Little Rock. It would foster a community of people who care about music and give them the confidence to get onstage.
That vision has largely been fulfilled. Performances lean toward folk and acoustic, but the genre is unimportant. Except on nights when touring acts pass through, anyone can play, even if he doesn't have a single performance to his credit.
“We've got people who are actual followers of the place and who dig it,” Barrow said.
But could Studio Joe remain economically viable selling appetizers and coffee at free open-mic nights? The menu was no problem, Shurgar said: after adding beer and wine, business ticked up. Was the place not oddly located? Wouldn't it be overshadowed by the surrounding retailers? On the contrary, said Barrow: “This is a natural reaction to the big-box phenomenon.” (It is also a natural reaction to the proximity of Barrow's family and general practice. As a sign above the bar encourages patrons: See the Quack Next Door.)
The venue upped its exposure dramatically this past October when KUAR began airing the aptly titled “Studio Joe” on Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. The show was the idea of Nelson, a clean-cut Mountain Home native who plays in Dale Hawkins' band and has an affinity for the word “neat.” He and Shurgar are constantly recording, be the performer a touring act, an off-the-cuff amateur or someone who's purchased studio time to get a professional sound. The best material they edit and send to the radio station, which plays selections from two or three artists each show.
The Thursday concert, by singer-songwriter Cheryl Bliss, was set to be recorded for KUAR. But, though Shurgar and Nelson seemed chipper, Barrow looked despondent, perhaps because it was half an hour past the advertised start time and there were only eight people in the audience, including a 20-something girl who may or may not have been with the band, a surly looking smoker with girlfriend in tow, and three sexagenarian women. “Thursdays have been rough for us,” Barrow mentioned. The recording on the radio will reveal Bliss' fine singing voice, but it can't show the emptiness in the room that night.
The following Tuesday, however, presented a very different scene. Though the room was at about half of its 65-person capacity, it felt almost full. The owners laughed and chatted in the back, and guitar cases littered the back walls. A chalk board over the bar listed eight or 10 names of people waiting to take the stage.
Between a soft-rock duo and a kid who strummed his guitar a bit too vigorously was a white-haired, bearded guitarist named Rob Gray. My ears perked up from the first measures. Gray's playing style was clean and precise. He picked each string individually, in a folk mode. The lyrics of his first number, “Blue Sky,” were wistful, and somehow moving in their simplicity. Before the third song of his three-song set, he produced a notebook and began defining hobo slang that would appear in his next Woody Guthrie-like number. The performance was, in short, spontaneous and beautiful.
Within the next few days, I went to Gray's MySpace page and listened to “Blue Sky” again. It didn't have quite the same power; it sounded overproduced; had it been on the radio I may have even skipped it. But amid the din of other performers who didn't speak to me — and even in a place as sterile as West Little Rock — it rang true.