When developing singer-songwriter Maura Streppa stepped onto the corner stage at a Nashville bar on June 8, she gave the band a quick overview of “Line Dance,” a song the musicians had never played before.
It required a little guitar tuning, a rundown of the chords and an explanation about the song’s pacing: “It’s ‘Redneck Woman’ tempo.”
The band quickly picked up on the honky-tonk groove and helped Streppa realize the high-rising nature of the chorus. But before it ended, bassist-musical director Eric Fortaleza waved excitedly at the other musicians, and in short order, they all dropped out, giving the singer an unplanned a cappella take on the chorus with hand claps to set up the finale.
This is not your father’s open-mic night.
Fortaleza is the founder of The Pitch Meeting, a burgeoning weekly event at Sonny’s Patio Pub and Refuge that uses modern tech, a communal spirit and a full band to flip the traditional guitar-and-vocal songwriter night on its ear.
The classic open-mic format is rather low-key. A range of songwriters drag their guitars into a club and play bare-bones versions of their songs, usually focused on lyrics and storytelling, to a beer-guzzling crowd.
The Pitch Meeting, by contrast, offers a full band, giving many of the signees the opportunity to hear a fully produced version of a new song for the first time on a stage that includes a quality sound system, a multicolored lighting system and even a smoke machine. The setting encourages songs with big hooks and inviting melodies, the kind of material that dominates modern country radio. The performance is recorded digitally and captured on camera, and half of the bar’s TV screens feed the networking aspect of the exercise, featuring the song title, the writer’s name and their Instagram address.
“We want to give these people the experience of playing with a band who has played in front of thousands of people,” says co-founder Mike Gannon, a singer-songwriter who plays slide guitar in the band and oversees The Pitch Meeting’s tech. “We want to give you the sound experience, we’re working on the lighting experience, and we want the whole thing to be levels above what you would expect from just a bar-Nashville kind of night.”
Fortaleza and keyboardist David Crutcher are members of Lindsay Ell‘s road band, and Gannon, drummer Jon Truman and backing vocalists Makena Hartlin and Tabitha Meeks are all experienced session players. In the last installment of The Pitch Meeting, they successfully navigated a range of styles — from Motown to tongue-in-cheek country to the Snow Patrol-like moody pop song “is this seasonal depression or am I just sad” — giving life to a setlist made up strictly of original songs.
“You can’t sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ unless you wrote ‘Sweet Caroline,’ ” quipped Fortaleza that night.
The Pitch Meeting fills a lot of holes in Nashville’s club scene, providing a setting for developing artists and songwriters to try out new material with quality players. It openly promotes networking for regulars and out-of-towners alike, and its unpredictable nature offers sheer entertainment for audience members seeking a crowd and a soundtrack while they watch hockey on a big screen.
The open-mic mashup with session-tested players is a link that Fortaleza had expected to find when he moved to Music City from Australia two years ago. When he realized it didn’t exist, he pulled The Pitch Meeting team together, debuting the idea last fall at Belcourt Taps in the middle of the pandemic. The crowds were necessarily smaller, and the band was cut off from the audience by a large sheet of pleated plastic — practically a shower curtain.
The Pitch Meeting has come a long way in short order, moving to the larger Sonny’s in time to handle increased traffic as more club-goers emerge while the coronavirus recedes. The show has a professional feel to it: The sign-up menu is on a laptop rather than on paper, and the event’s logo is featured on video screens and even on the skin of Truman’s kick drum. The group, which has been granted 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, has also established Pitch Meeting Studios, and envisions an artist-development piece that furthers some of the talent they discover.
“The power of it is really this idea of a movement that we all are trying to create and be a part of,” says Gannon. “Hopefully, it’s like a rising-tide-floats-all-boats kind of thing that attracts like-minded people and creates this community around it.”
It’s already being embraced by the community, with a special guest aboard to help warm up the crowd on a weekly basis. The June 8 event featured jam-band/country singer-songwriter Daniel Donato, who developed some scintillating instrumental battles with Fortaleza and Gannon in improvisational breaks. Upcoming installments feature mainstream country acts Ell and Caroline Jones, pop-leaning American Idol graduate Walker Burroughs and singer-standup bassist Scott Mulvahill, a multigenre musician who was previously with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder.
The Pitch Meeting has developed enough community in its short existence that it’s already influencing activity around town.
“There was this guy that messaged me from the studio,” remembers Fortaleza. “He’s like, ‘Hey, dude, I just want to show appreciation. I’m currently at the studio recording my album. I look around, and I met all these guys at The Pitch Meeting. Thank you for that night.'”
But it’s also leaving a mark on out-of-towners who find their way to Sonny’s. Hunter Reece, the final performer on June 8, closed his power-pop number “Tylenol” with a similar appreciation for the band and for the innovative setup.
“This,” he said, “is exactly what I expected from Nashville.”
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