If you go
What: Boulder In-The-Round
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder
Cost: Donations and tips
What made "MTV Unplugged" a success in the early-'90s was that it allowed viewers to watch music superheroes like Kurt Cobain, Eric Clapton and Natalie Merchant play on an intimate stage, to a community-oriented audience. Recalling personal stories that lived behind the hits is what made the experience so warm.
Musician Theresa Peterson and a pair of fellow songwriting friends cultivated an "unplugged" setting in Boulder — but there are added bonuses to the Boulder In-The-Round creation: Viewers aren't on a couch in front of a TV, but rather in eTown Hall, a world-renowned music venue and recording studio; it's a highly-curated show of hand-picked musicians playing original material; it's free. (But, donations and tips are accepted with open arms, as musicians have to pay rent, too.)
Peterson, the host and curator, founded Boulder In-The-Round almost four years ago with musicians Hunter Stone and Wilson Harwood when the trio met performing at local open mics. Although they appreciate and praise the open mic, they yearned for a listening space that would cultivate a solid experience — one that goes beyond a festively noisy brewery or bar.
"We wanted to curate a show that we, as musicians, would love to play, to perform songs that we wrote ourselves," said Peterson. "It's not hard (for musicians) to get gigs, but it's hard to find a listening room. We don't have a lot of options to play where people are listening to our songs, our words, our music. We wanted a place where people could appreciate original content."
After a couple years at Vapor Distillery in Boulder, the group graduated in 2017 to eTown, home of a nationally-syndicated radio show hosted by Boulder's Nick and Helen Forster. Every first Wednesday (except July), four singer-songwriters take the stage to share songs and conversation. July's event falls a week later because of Independence Day. It gets rolling at 7 p.m. Wednesday with Boulder's Allie Chipkin, Dave Tamkin and Shanna Hoar and Denver's Sawyer Bernath, of Copper Leaf. The show is accompanied by a live painting.
'That's just how my brain works'
"We hand-pick the musicians for every single lineup," said Peterson, who besides curating and hosting usually plays the show a couple times a year. "It's not about filling slots and booking lineups. It's about finding and building community."
Peterson takes pride in crafting a perfect set each month, and her artists recognize the hard work.
"Theresa puts such an immaculate amount of attention and care to design really stellar lineups," said Hoar, who goes by Shanna in a Dress. "It's pretty unusual to see four high-caliber singer-songwriters who are very complementary to one another."
Hoar and Tamkin said they have both separately performed at the event a handful of times.
"I like that Theresa (Peterson) and Hunter (Stone) never stopped working to build this community," said Tamkin, via email on a layover from Iceland. Tamkin, from Chicago, is acclaimed internationally and made Boulder his home six years ago with his wife, Annie. "I appreciate their drive, their music and the variety of musicians that they have cultivated to make each show unique."
The musicians play for community first, but the tips sure don't hurt. They each play about six songs and typically share stories behind them. Or they just share in general, which is what Hoar does best, she said.
"I don't know why my music is quirky and fun, that's just how my brain works," said Hoar. "I grew up on really lowbrow music like NSYNC and Britney Spears. And I love Taylor Swift, but I don't really know what brow she is ..."
Hoar paused for laughter. (It was successful.)
She said the first song she ever wrote was about why she would be the perfect girlfriend — followed by the second song, about Chipotle. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her comedic timing is spot-on. She even checked off a bucket-list item by doing stand-up comedy a while back at Trident on Pearl Street.
"People generally think my banter is funny when I'm on stage playing, but when I got up for the comedy night, I did not feel funny," Hoar said. "I mean, my whore jokes went over well at the beginning, but that's about it."
Stragglers: Her last name is Hoar. And for the record, Shanna in a Dress does not wear pants.
"That's accurate," Hoar said. "Unless I'm in yoga. I hear it's frowned upon to do yoga in dresses."
More than just musicians with guitars
Hoar said she feels honored to play the stage at eTown, where artists like Mumford & Sons, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Moby, Lucinda Williams and more have recorded live radio broadcasts with the Forsters, in front of a live audience.
"For a show in Boulder, I don't think you can get a better listening room," Hoar said. "The room is always full of people who appreciate the songs. It feels special to play that stage."
The careers of Hoar and Tamkin may be past the storied open mic nights, as they each travel the state, country and overseas to perform. But they aren't beyond playing this free gig in Boulder, because it's way more than just a couple musicians with guitars.
"I'm not sure if it's the camaraderie between the songwriters or the fact that everyone shows up to play because they know they are going to get honest feedback from a music-loving audience," said Tamkin, via email. "It's an event where songwriters can share stories and try out new ideas and get honest feedback."
Plus, halfway through the show, there's a "mingle break," Hoar said — it's her favorite part.
"It's simple and so genius," said Hoar. "It builds community as you get to know the people around you. I can't stand being quiet that long. And as a performer, the attention is great."