The sound of silence: Ottawa concert series allows musicians’ songs to really be heard

Musicians perform for the chance to be heard.

Even better is the opportunity to be HEARD — playing in front of a quiet, respectful audience that clearly can hear every note.

During parts of the Oct. 15 Storytellers Studio Sessions concert at Lone Buffalo, in downtown Ottawa, audience members could hear members of the kitchen staff work and talk.

“Yeah, we heard that, too,” said singer, songwriter and guitarist Kelly Steward, who, along with her husband, Miles Nielsen, hosted the opening night of the Americana-flavored quarterly acoustic music series, which will continue through April 18 in the dining room of the brewery.

“I think you could hear a pin drop, and that’s all an artist can ask for,” Steward said.

Musicians and audience enjoy the intimate setting inside Lone Buffalo during the Storytellers series concert.

Opening night for the series filled the Lone Buffalo dining room, as guests dined and drank handcrafted brews before Nielsen and Steward, who perform as duo Weep & Willow, played “In Too Deep,” an original song.

“Tonight is about the music, listening to the artists, listening to the songs and stories,” Scott Struchen, founder and chief commercial officer of Tangled Roots Brewing Company, which overseas Lone Buffalo, told audience members before the concert began.

Nielsen and Steward, who reside in Rockford, turned the show over to Matthew Ryan, a veteran singer-songwriter based in Nashville, and Minneapolis-St. Paul musician Nick Leet. Over the next two hours, Ryan and Leet alternated with Nielsen and Steward (sometimes as a duet and sometimes separately) in singing songs and talking about their tunes.

“It’s kind of like a buffet. It gets a little bit of that and a little bit about the state of the world,” Leet said prior to performing his song “Blue Rain.”

The Storytellers Studio idea came from Ottawa’s Dave Gualandri, who pitched it to Tangled Roots.

“Dave felt Miles and Kelly would be the perfect hosts for this,” said Anna Wright, Lone Buffalo event coordinator.

Gualandri has been hosting Storytellers sessions at his home for several years, and after meeting Struchen discovered the two were on the same page.

“We had discussions about what kind of shows we would like to do. Our ideas were similar,” Gualandri said.

“I’ve wanted to create a ‘Storytellers’ show ever since I’ve been in the restaurant business,” said Struchen, Tangled Roots founder and chief commercial officer. He was referencing “Storytellers,” a program that ran from 1996 to 2015 on the music TV channel VH1. In it, artists performed in front of a mostly small, live audience, and told stories about their music, writing experiences and memories.

Ryan particularly seemed to enjoy the format. Between songs he talked about growing up outside Philadelphia, complained about people talking on cellphones while driving, and reflected on how important his sons are to him.

Audience members fill The Lone Buffalo in downtown Ottawa during a Storytellers Studio session in October.

“I like listening to (Ryan) talk because he’s so much smarter than us,” said Nielsen, frontman for the rock ’n’ roll band Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. Miles’ father, Rick, is lead guitarist and founder of Rockford’s own Cheap Trick, 2016 Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Brother Daxx is that band’s drummer.

Sitting in the front row for the Storytellers show were Ed Johnson and his wife, Jenny, from Cedar Point. The Johnsons, who bought season subscriptions, enjoyed seeing a live show in an intimate venue.

“There’s no talking and you can see everything going on. I would say it’s more about the sounds and sights,” Ed said.

“It’s a very unique place. It’s beautiful,” said Jenny.

Leet never had played in Starved Rock Country, but said the show was worth the 6 1/2-hour drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Ottawa.

“Dave asked me to come last year, but I couldn’t do it. This time I could, and I’m glad I came. It was fantastic,” he said.

“For the first show it went about as well as it could. Ideally the series develops into a mainstay and brings nationally-known acts to Ottawa,” Gualandri said, suggesting top acts playing in Chicago, Indianapolis or St. Louis could swing by Ottawa and perform.

Miles Nielsen, co-host with Kelly Steward (right) of the Storytellers Studio Sessions, chats with audience members while musicians Nick Leet (far left) and Matthew Ryan listen.

Nielsen, on guitar, played a slow, acoustic version of “Surrender,” the Cheap Trick hit co-written by his father (“I was taught this as more of a ballad than a rock ’n’ roll song,” he cracked) and recounted how he became a fan of rock music outside of Cheap Trick.

Ryan talked about the late Tom Petty, and what Petty’s music meant to him. Ryan then covered Petty’s song “Walls.”

“I love these kind of nights, because we get to dig in a little as to where the songs came from,” Ryan said.

Additional Storytellers Studio Sessions will be Dec. 3, Feb. 18 and April 8. All shows begin at 6 p.m. Sundays.

“We just hope this series takes off. Musicians have word of mouth. They go where they can be heard,” Johnson said.

And after just one Storytellers show, Lone Buffalo has proven it’s that kind of venue, with or without the sounds coming out of the kitchen.

The setup
• Storytellers Studio Sessions take place Sundays at Lone Buffalo, 812 La Salle St., Ottawa.
• The shows are hosted by Miles Nielsen and Kelly Steward, husband-and-wife musicians who perform as the duo Weep & Willow.
• Tickets are $25 ($90 for a season pass) and include a two-drink minimum (non-alcoholic beverages included), with doors opening at 4:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. concerts, with selected menu items available throughout the show.
• To order tickets, visit or call 815-324-9686.

The schedule
Upcoming Storytellers Studio Sessions concerts will include:
• Dec. 3: Derek Luttrell ( and Sam Llanas (formerly of The BoDeans,
• Feb. 18: Brandon Sampson and Heather Sampson.
• April 8: Andrew Hyra ( of Billy Pilgrim and Smokin’ Novas.

— Story by Mike Murphy, photos by Doug Larson

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