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In the Sinner's Circle, local singer-songwriters offer a glimpse into their craft
For Ben Parent, singer-guitarist for local folk-rock deities The Rivergods, songwriting isn't exactly the domain of the squeaky clean and righteous.
"Songwriters are troubadours, travelers, wanderers; it's about living, loving, losing, gleaning, going down to the crossroads, all that stuff," he said. "I equate songwriting with experiencing life, good and bad, and relaying that back to anyone who cares to listen."
In that context, Parent and like-minded friends founded Sinner's Circle, a semi-regular series of songwriters-in-the-round shows that reconvenes Saturday night at Bean & Leaf coffeehouse in New London.
This is the second Sinner's Circle event, and the format is that four theoretically disparate songwriters get onstage together with acoustic guitars and respectively and collaboratively showcase their tunes and the stories behind them.
Saturday's artists are Daphne Glover of Roadside Attractions, multi-instrumentalist Sandy Allen of The Rivergods and The Hoolios, Hugh Birdsall of The Reducers and Dogbite, and John Fries of The Lo-Fi Radiostars.
More shows are scheduled for October and November. All of the Sinner's Circle performances benefit local food pantries.
Sinner's Circle, appropriately, has a roundabout origin.
About a year and some change ago, Parent fired off an e-mail to guitarist-songwriter-soundman extraordinaire Jim Carpenter of the roots band The Hoolios. He had an idea.
Parent wanted a few of the songwriters from various bands from Greater New London to get together at a venue to play each other's songs before an audience.
"I thought it would be really cool," he said. "I have a great interest in songs, and this would be a showcase for the songs from a lot of good bands."
Well, as often happens with great ideas, life gets in the way and they just sort of sit there.
But in January, Fries, whose Lo-Fi Radiostars represent a classic rock style, called Carpenter with a proposal that sounded familiar.
"I don't usually play out acoustic," Fries said. "But I wanted to get together with some others and see how it goes."
Parent, Fries and Carpenter eventually met about Sinner's Circle and it wasn't long after that they set a date at the Bean & Leaf coffeehouse in New London.
It didn't take long for Parent to book Birdsall and round out the fourth member of the inaugural Sinner's Circle.
"Hugh as been my local music idol for years," Parent said.
The quartet rehearsed only once, decided on a set list and threw it to the fates.
"The rehearsal helped," Birdsall said. "We all came from different backgrounds, but we learned the songs and the background vocals pretty quickly."
The set was a mix of songs from the their bands' repertoire, along with some odds and sods, that they've each had on the back burner.
"Sometimes I'll write an acoustic song that I won't bring to bring to the band," Fries said.
Fries played two of the them at the first session, while Parent offered a couple of Rivergods songs, as well as one from his punkish side project Superbald.
Birdsall played some Dogbite songs and some works in progress, while Carpenter offered some originals, and generally wowed the crowd and his fellow musicians.
"You could see the jaws dropping when Jim played," Birdsall said.
Parent originally conceived of Sinner's Circle as a one off thing.
"But we had so much fun and the audience really liked it," Parent said. "So we decided to do it again."
Glover, who has tested her distinctive lounge/swing material in the round before, said it's a good opportunity for songwriters to hone their chops in front of both peers and a live audience.
"It's steel on steel," she said. "It shapes (our) skills."