Coming to confession Skilled Lowcountry singer-songwriter leads open mic as her own sound evolves

Well-known local musician Danielle Howle adds her songs and voice to the mix at Home Team BBQ’s open mic night, called Holy City Confessional, as an emcee and performer.

Unlike the formal confessionals where churchgoers whisper, pay penance and ask for reconciliation in private, the weekly Holy City Confessionals open mic series at Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ in West Ashley is cheerfully casual, welcoming and open to all musicians and music lovers.

While there’s no shortage of open mic nights around the Lowcountry bar scene, very few emphasize original material the way that Holy City Confessionals has done on Monday nights in recent years. Modeled after the musical showcases of Nashville that focus on the art and craft of song writing, the Holy City Confessional has offered an assortment of talents and styles from the restaurant and music venue’s cozy corner stage.

Under the guidance of Home Team co-owner and music director Tony McKie, the series kicked off in 2012 with amiable Charleston songwriter/guitarist Ryan Bonner as the emcee. Bonner welcomed all sorts of experienced and rookie singer/guitarists and backing players to the stage, establishing Holy City Confessionals as one of the go-to jam sessions in the local scene.

“The idea here is to get away from the kind of open mic where classic rock guys show up with their covers songs. The Holy City Confessionals was born out of those singer/songwriter showcases that feature original music,” McKie said.

These days, revered songsmith Danielle Howle, a veteran folk-rocker with an impressive repertoire of melodic and experimental originals, stands at the helm of the lively music series. The Holy City Confessionals series is held every Monday. Admission is free and sign-up is open to all original performers.

“Back in the winter, when Tony asked me to do this, he told me that they’d had a really good run with the original idea behind the Holy City Confessionals open mic thing and that Ryan was stepping down to do other things,” Howle says. “They were looking for somebody new and different. At first, I was scared to try, but then I thought, ‘Wait, this is exactly what I want to be doing. This is great.’ It’s been a delight.”

“I love that this one of the only open mics in town with the stipulation that it has to be original music,” Howle said. “It’s truly a singer-songwriter event with a great mix of styles, and that’s attractive to a lot of players and music fans alike. Personally, I love being in that moment with a songwriter when they’re trying something out for the first time in front of an audience; it’s an honor to see and hear that happen, right there in the moment.”

For Howle, stepping on stage as a solo performer or with a full band with a set of songs and a stage full of gear feels natural and comfortable. She’s made a career out of that for more than 25 years. However, it’s a little different when it comes to actually hosting a musical event.

“In general, it’s easier for me to sing on a microphone than to talk on one while on stage,” she admitted. “One of the trickiest things for me is simply getting a performer’s name right when I introduce them on the mic. I never want to mispronounce someone’s name on stage.”

Slight in frame and shy by nature, Howle said she was initially nervous and slightly intimidated when she started emceeing on Monday nights, but she immediately gained confidence with the support of co-host and Home Team bar manager Reid Stone (the frontman of local band Guilt Ridden Troubadour) and longtime Home Team sound engineer Wilson Pippin, both of whom provide extra amplifiers and drums as the event’s backline on stage.

“It’s great that Home Team BBQ truly has a team for open mic night; they truly live up to the name,” Howle laughs. “Having a backline allows us to welcome more than just solo guitarists, and having Reid, Wilson, and their pals in the room is extremely helpful.”

The sense of camaraderie and mutual support is important to McKie, too. He hopes the series will attract and encourage musicians and songwriters of any genre.

“We want real, heartfelt music from anybody who feels confident enough to write it and perform it,” he said. “With Danielle and Reid, you have that musician support and guidance. Danielle has experience with music students as well as professional musicians, so that’s valuable. It’s a good avenue for creativity, all around.”

For many roots music fans around the Carolinas, Danielle Howle is practically a household name. She’s been cranking out earthy, melodic, dynamic songs since the early 1990s when she co-fronted a Columbia-based college radio band called Lay Quiet Awhile.

In the late ’90s, Howle veered into a solo career, exploring folk music, indie rock and acoustic-based Americana-rock and releasing albums for the Daemon, Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop and Simple Machines labels. She fronted a popular band called The Tantrums before relocating to the Lowcountry in the early 2000s.

Over the last few years, she’s been the “artist in residence” at Awendaw Green, a unique setting on the grounds behind the Sewee Outpost in Awendaw (just off Highway 17) where proprietor Eddie White and a team of volunteers host outdoor concerts and special events, including the weekly Barn Jams on Wednesday evenings.

Howle has consistently assisted Awendaw Green with shows and festivals for the last eight years: behind the scenes, at the concessions areas and on stage. In 2009, Howle and members of the Awendaw Green collective wrapped a year’s worth of recording sessions at the Swamp House, a solar-powered facility owned by White near Echaw Creek deep within the Francis Marion National Forest.

Howle’s latest studio album shows off her collaborations with members of experimental local band and Firework Show and Savannah-based power-pop group A Fragile Tomorrow. In early 2012, A Fragile Tomorrow frontman Sean Kelly engineered the nine-song collection “New Year’s Resolutions” at Howle’s house. The album featured Howle alongside Firework Show’s Brandon Gallagher on drums, Casey Atwater on bass, and Zach Bodtorf on guitar.

“I’ve learned that being a good leader means being a good listener, and I want to be the best listener I can be in band situations,” Howle said. “I’m coming into my own as a confident songwriter in the way that I don’t immediately self-edit my new ideas ... Mainly, I want to make things comfortable for everyone and just get on with making some music.”

Over the last two years, Kelly and Bodtorf have remained as Howle’s core bandmates with a rotation of musicians in the mix.

“My band family has exponentially grown over the last few years,” Howle said. “As is the case across the South Carolina music scene, most of us musicians simultaneously play in many different groups. It’s a blast having different players, and I’ve been very fortunate to have played with tasteful musicians who really know how to play to the songs.”

Howle has already started arranging new compositions and enlisting guest musicians for forthcoming sessions at a handful of recording studios around the Southeast. She plans to track a full-length album by the end of the year.

“Sonically, the shape of the sound comes largely from the interplay between Zach Bodtorf’s guitar work and my singing, along with the unique way the rhythm sections approach the songs,” Howle said. “I think my music is a little bit more cohesive than it’s been before ... I can’t wait to push it all into the studios.”

Howle’s vibrant rotation of colleagues and bandmates resembles the healthy mix of players and genres of music that swirl around the Holy City Confessionals series each week. The sense of spontaneity is strong; one never knows who’ll show up or what might happen on stage.

Howle opens each open mic session with a brief set of her own material, usually four or five tunes, some of which come from the deep corners of her set list, while others are brand-new.

“I want to use this as a way to try out my own new song ideas,” she said. “It’s a fun challenge to try to write and perform (a) new song each week.”

In the spring and summer weeks of Howle’s tenure, all sorts of players have signed in and performed on Mondays, from Charleston songsmiths Erin Johns and Jordan Igoe, Lily Slay (of the Royal Tinfoil), Hunter Park (of She Returns From War) to various members of Finnegan Bell, Josh Roberts and the Hinges and Gaslight Street..

“We’ve had some brand-new folks ... young people who haven’t yet formed a band, up-and-comers with newly written material, and even touring musicians who happen to be in town with a Monday night off,” Howle said. “For the out-of-towners, this is one of the best gigs they can do because they can sell albums, meet local musicians and share their music with an audience, all of which will help them the next time they swing back into town.”

“There are all these different elements these days,” Howle added. “You’ve got the local musicians and songwriters who are established, the locals who are just starting out, the visiting artists and the ‘what’s-goin’-on’ listeners in the audience. It’s unpredictable, quite fun and very positive.”

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