Music lover Chris Maxwell opened the original Red Dragon Listening Room location in 2003. He wanted to fill the void left by the closing of Marian Pickett’s M’s Fine and Mellow Café in 2002.
Pickett’s Third Street music venue and restaurant was a listening room. If patrons were too loud during performances, Pickett shushed them herself. M’s Fine and Mellow Café presented music, including jazz and singer-songwriters, that wasn’t being widely heard in Baton Rouge.
“After 9/11, M’s Fine and Mellow Café hung on for a little bit but then they had to shut their doors,” Maxwell said. “That was the last avenue for really good singer-songwriters in this town.”
Maxwell subsequently grew weary of driving to Houston to hear singer-songwriters. He opened the 80-seat Red Dragon Listening Room at 5051 Government St., but lost the building in 2009 to a city-parish turning lane project at Government and Foster Drive. Maxwell moved the Red Dragon to its present location at 2401 Florida St. Seating approximately 100, it’s a cozy, eccentrically decorated, exceptionally intimate concert venue.
Through the Dragon’s nearly 15 years of operation, the venue’s founders, Maxwell and his wife, Liz, have presented acclaimed singer-songwriters who, despite their great reviews and respect from peers, are not highly profitable attractions in many American cities.
Occasionally, too, stars appeared at the tiny Red Dragon, including Joan Baez, second generation star Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker and, a legendary associate of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
But 2014 was a hard year for the Red Dragon. Big, unexpected expenses cropped up alongside the usual costs of running the grass-roots organization, which recently received its federal 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
“We thought the Dragon could stand on its own,” Maxwell said. “But the costs have been astronomical. Maybe not astronomical for real businesses that have income, but we really don’t have income.”
In 2014, Maxwell also started the Red Dragon Songwriters Series at the Manship Theatre, the use of which requires rent and fees. Unlike the Listening Room, Maxwell envisioned the Manship series as a for-profit venture. The series’ ambitious slate of 12 shows last year earned $4,800, he said.
“We’re not really upset with that,” he said. “It would have been a really fine income if it hadn’t been for me choosing a few shows that were stinkers as far as income. This year I’ll let my heart get a little bit less ahead of my head.”
Back at the Red Dragon Listening Room, about two dozen performers and supporters are volunteering their talents Friday and Saturday for the annual Save Our Dragon Palooza.
“All the money is going to keeping us afloat,” Maxwell said.
The Save Our Dragon Palooza performers include talented local singer-songwriter Jodi James.
“You can’t deny the allure of the Red Dragon,” James said. “A place designed to provide an intimate and modest platform where well-crafted songs can be presented and appreciated, it’s home to a thriving camaraderie of local musicians and loyal listening community. It deserves to exist.”
Internationally known New Orleans singer, songwriter and storyteller Spencer Bohren isn’t performing at the Palooza this weekend, but he knows the Red Dragon and loves it.
“Acoustic music fans from New Orleans make the drive to Baton Rouge regularly to enjoy musical heroes they can’t see and hear at home,” Bohren said. “Any city in America would be proud to have the Red Dragon. I encourage anyone and everyone to do everything and anything they can to keep the Dragon’s doors open. The Red Dragon needs a little help. Be a friend.”
7 p.m.: Wilder James
7:45 p.m.: Chris House and Jim Standley
8:15 p.m.: Fugitive Poets
9 p.m.: Jodi James and Clay Parker
9:30 p.m.: Ryan Harris and Eric Schmitt
10 p.m.: Keith Harrelson and Patrick Cooper
10:30 p.m.: Polly Pry
7 p.m.: Lou Lipinski
7:30 p.m.: Rob Chidester, Eric Disanto, Bill Romano
8:15 p.m.: Martin Flanagan, Barry Hebert, Steve Judice
9 p.m.: Margaret Marston
9:30 p.m.: Chris Canterbury and Billy Lee
10:15 p.m.: Cupcake Strippers