BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Hundreds of cars speed by the squat building in the 2400 block of Florida Blvd every day. Fresh white paint and green trim hide the deteriorating bones of the World War II structure.
“It’s an ugly little building, isn’t it?” joked owner Chris Maxwell.
If those drivers only knew the greatness inside the shack, they might find reason to slow their roll for a minute or two.
“There’s 18 couches in here,” said Maxwell, shifting a pile of pillows from one seat to the floor.
The couches aren’t much to look at either.
“I would say, the next stop for any of these couches would be somebody’s dorm room.”
But for the songwriters who have looked out at those couches and poured their hearts out to the people seated on them, The Red Dragon Listening Room is something special.
“We didn’t want to be a bar,” Maxwell explained. “We didn’t want to be an exhibition hall or other thing we might have been. A listening room told the story of what you would do if you came to the place.”
Founded in 2001, The Red Dragon was one of the country’s first music halls dedicated solely to listening. The original listening room on the ground floor of a Government St building Maxwell and his wife bought for his kids to live in while they were in college. “The downstairs sat empty,” Maxwell said, “so we started doing shows.”
Maxwell named his listening room after the Red Dragons painted on the walls -- leftovers from the previous tenant, The Red Dragon Tattoo Parlor.
The Red Dragon has been attracting music fans ever since.
“We tell everybody if they want to have a conversation during the performance, they should take to the patio,” Maxwell said. “My daughter calls it the Shut The Hell Up Speech.”
That policy has also attracted songwriting nobility from around the world. “The musicians love it,” Maxwell said. “We get musicians that should never play a place this small, just because they enjoy playing for an audience that’s listening.”
Artists like Joan Baez, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Byrds founder, Chris Hillman, have graced the stage. And the living room appeal led Newsweek magazine to name The Red Dragon to its Top 10 Music Meccas in the world back in 2019.
“They put us as number 1 and we were the only venue in the United States,” Maxwell said.
But global acclaim aside, Maxwell sees his mission as more local in scope, pairing local songwriters on the same bill as big names.
“The national musician will have a fan base and bring out an audience. The local musicians can make great hay out of that,” he said.
It is a place where local musicians can play original music. The songs they cannot play in bars where the cover tune is king.
The Red Dragon sailed into 2020 with some of its best attendance numbers ever. Then came March 13, and the COVID lockdown. The Red Dragon fell silent.
National acts suspended tours. Local musicians scattered to find outdoor restaurants where they could play.
Cumberland County was a Red Dragon regular before COVID. The duo of Eric DiSanto and Kristin Courville sat idle for months before latching on to a couple of regular slots playing at Crevasse Restaurant in Convent, La.
DiSanto said the local music scene took a big blow when The Red Dragon had to close.
“[Maxwell] is definitely the biggest supporter of local, original music,” said DiSanto.
Without The Red Dragon, DiSanto said original music does not get heard in Baton Rouge.
“It wouldn’t get heard across the Gulf States. It just wouldn’t get heard,” DiSanto added.
And Maxwell does it all for free.
“He doesn’t take a dime, which, I think, is amazing. That’s the only venue that I can think of that the owner doesn’t take anything out of it,” DiSanto explained.
He holds a palooza-style concert every summer to keep the lights on. Everything else all year goes to the musicians. This year’s concert is April 24-25.
With indoor concerts still restricted, Maxwell is calling this year’s show Pandemic Palooza and he is taking the music outside to Buddy’s Backyard on Hoo Shoo Too Road. All the proceeds from the weekend will again go to booking national acts and keeping the lights on inside The Red Dragon.
Maxwell hopes to have musicians looking out on those dorm room couches and pouring their hearts out to the people sitting in them by June.
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