When The Whiskey Jar opened in February at the west end of the Downtown Mall, it came as something of a surprise. After all, Escafé had held down that spot for 17 years and several owners, before a recent relocation. Seven months later, The Whiskey Jar has become a reliable regular destination for many Mall-goers.
The restaurant is co-owned by Will Richey and John Reynolds of Revolutionary Soup, along with Cary Carpenter, who sports what must easily be the most impressive mustache in town. In addition to delicious, locally sourced food and a wide selection of whiskey and other refreshments, the establishment has been adding live music to its menu. Josha McBee—an employee of no less than three Charlottesville restaurants-—has been handling the booking, with assistance from local promoter Jeyon Falsini. They’ve hosted live acts on weekends since opening, but starting this month the restaurant takes things to the next level with music six nights a week, and a trio of local performers sitting in with residencies every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
“The shows during the week are more like dinner music,” said Carpenter. “They start earlier, around 6pm,” which seems like a natural choice since the sizable late night crowds often grow loud enough to drown out quiet performers. The mellow mood of an early evening concert gives diners the chance to hear acts like the Rick Olivarez Trio, which boasts a strong local following for its performances in the C&O Bistro every Tuesday. “Having Rick Olivarez play here every Wednesday is phenomenal,” said Carpenter. “He’s just posted up in the window all evening, and everyone outside on the patio can hear too.”
Among the most impressive acts on the roster is Erik “Red” Knierim, a talented but reclusive local musician. Erik the Red— a tall, red-haired country boy, often sporting suspenders or pigtails—is an affable and charming presence, whose music seems like it could have come from another era. Knierim’s sensibility is distinctly un-modern. His dense Virginia drawl is so unlike most modern singers, his genuine kindness and enthusiasm seem unaffected by 21st century cynicism, and his original blues songs about his own life, detailing work as a stonemason, pining for a departed sweetheart, and trying to keep foxes away from the chicken coop, seem both old-fashioned and timeless. I had to dig out a Charlottesville High School yearbook from 1997 to verify that Erik the Red was, in fact, the same person as the Erik Knierim I half-remembered from 15 years ago.
Adding to his mystique, and fueling no shortage of rumors, Knierim can be elusive and unpredictable, though always genuinely friendly. There is little to no information about his music available on the internet, none of his recordings have been released (with the exception of a single song that appeared as a bonus track on a 2005 Corn-
dawg album), he has no functioning e-mail address, and can only be reached by landline. For several years he would often be added to a concert bill at the last minute, or talked onto the stage for a short set if he happened to be present. Listeners are always charmed by his songs and stories, but it’s difficult for anyone, including eager show promoters, to know when or if they might hear from him next. Thus, the prospect of being able to hear Erik the Red every Monday is something of a treasure for Charlottesville music aficionados, and no small feat for The Whiskey Jar’s music bookers. “That was kind of random, actually” says Carpenter. “Betty Jo, who sings with Erik, does all of our flower arranging, so I think that’s how that got put together.”
Erik the Red, the Ragged Mountain String Band, and the Rick Olivarez Trio will perform at The Whiskey Jar every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively, through the month of September. While it’s not clear if those specific performers will continue in the coming months, Carpenter said the plan is to invite musicians to perform in weeknight residences, perhaps in a rotating selection. Whatever the outcome, The Whiskey Jar is solidifying its reputation as a spot for the discerning downtowner. “I wanted a place where I could hang out, drink whiskey, and listen to good music,” says Carpenter, “and now that’s what we do here every night.”
Music fans of the ’90s first encountered British folk singer Beth Orton through her collaborations with The Chemical Brothers, an unlikely but successful pairing. On songs like “Where Do I Begin,” Orton lent subtlety and grace to albums that elsewhere threatened to become overbearingly bombastic. She also released several fine solo albums, and gained a faithful musical following in her own right.
If Orton’s fame has waned slightly in recent years (it’s frequently necessary to remind casual listeners that she’s not the same person as Beth Gibbons, the singer of Portishead), her music has aged well, and stood the test of time far better than much of that played in coffee shops throughout the ’90s. Orton has thus far released just one album over the past decade, but it’s a fine one: 2006’s Comfort of Strangers, produced by the omnipresent Jim O’Rourke, which eschewed formerly trendy trip-hop beats for stripped-down, more traditional folk instrumentation. Her newest, Sugaring Season, is due out in early October.
Beth Orton will appear at the Jefferson Theater on September 24. Tickets are $20-23, and the doors open at 7pm. Sam Amidon opens.
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