Most students know Smith Union as a study space, home of Jack McGee’s Pub and Grill or the place where they can pick up care packages from home. But in addition to all of these functions, once a week, student performers turn the cozy, couch-lined area behind the Café into an impromptu concert hall.

Unplugged, a student-run acoustic concert series, takes place every Sunday night at 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the week. One to two artists perform at every concert, each one playing a 25-35 minute set. 

Though the typical Unplugged performer tends to be a singer-songwriter playing guitar, past concerts have featured harmonica, Chinese harp, banjo and percussion instruments. There is just one rule regarding the performance: the instrument must be unplugged. 

The space—dimly lit and filled with overstuffed couches—lends itself to an intimate show.
“It’s a welcoming, comfy atmosphere. It doesn’t demand a formal performance and it’s very homegrown in that way,” said Veronica Verdin ’15, a leader of Unplugged.

Sam Dodge ’17, her co-leader, agrees. He finds that the space provides artists with a unique platform to share their work in a safe environment.

“Even though the sound does usually carry all across the Union, it doesn’t feel that way so people are able to sing out and express themselves pretty well,” said Dodge.

Artists who have played for Unplugged echoed Dodge’s sentiment. 

When Evan Montilla ’17 played his first Unplugged show last year, he debuted songs that he had written himself. Since then, he has performed in three more shows. Montilla enjoys performing for Unplugged because it forces him out of his comfort zone. 

“If I had a [microphone], I would rely more on voice, but without one I can do a lot more tricks on the guitar, whether it’s slap guitar or doing harmonics or double tap music,” he said.
Unplugged was created in 2009 by Farhan Rahman ’10 in an effort to enhance Bowdoin’s music scene. 

“I don’t think there is enough live music at Bowdoin and I don’t think there is enough student support for live music,” Rahman said in a 2009 interview in the Orient.

Supporting live music remains an important tenet of Unplugged today, especially to Dodge.

 “I think a lot of people view unplugged music as less worthy than electric music because a lot of times it’s people covering songs [that are typically] played on an electric guitar with a full band. But I think unplugged acoustic music is an art form in its own right,” said Dodge.

Though  Unplugged will continue to support the live music scene, it has also developed new goals. 

For Verdin, Unplugged is about diversifying the music scene at Bowdoin. 

“It’s important to me to maintain an openness about it and to not have one performer performing multiple times, so that if a new performer wants to perform, they have the chance,” said Verdin.

For Dodge, Unplugged acts as “a way of preserving the folk tradition for future students and future generations.” 

“Folk is my focus,” he said. 

So far Unplugged has remained true to its name in only allowing acoustic music—last year Andrew Roseman ’14 played his electric guitar unplugged. But both leaders see opportunity for expansion and deviation from the rules. 

Dodge hopes that a future Unplugged concert will feature a piano performance. 

“I think that would be a lot of fun and give a lot of new people a chance to perform,” he said.

However, incorporating piano could mean straying from Unplugged tradition.

“I don’t know if that would mean relocating to a new space and finding a place that actually did have a piano or just letting someone break the rules a little bit and bring a keyboard up here,” said Dodge.

Verdin flirts with the idea of going electric, too.

“There’s a person who does electric violin… and he really wants to do an Unplugged [performance] but he would have to plug in. This might be a new era,” Verdin said.

Though “plugging in” does go against the name of the series, staying true to the name is perhaps less important than staying true to Unplugged’s current mission.

“If the Unplugged aesthetic is promoting greater diversity in music, then maybe [he’s] got to quietly plug in. Maybe that’s acceptable,” Verdin said.