Several years ago, Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in downtown Anoka experimented with a few live music concerts on otherwise "dark" nights, partly in response to the economic downturn.

At the time, the theater, which typically produces plays and musicals, was looking for new ways to get people in the door and to make the most of the space, according to Laura Tahja Johnson, managing director at Lyric Arts.

It seemed to strike a chord. "As people were leaving the shows, they would say to us, 'Thank you so much for giving us a place nearby to see live music,'" she said.

Too often, north metro residents have had to choose between traveling to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul or to a crowded bar to catch a concert.

At Lyric Arts, "The response was so phenomenal that we decided to expand."

Today, the theater is midway through its second full concert series, which parallels its theatrical season.

The nine monthly concerts feature various singers and songwriters and bands that perform a mix of traditional and alternative country, roots rock, bluegrass and other music. Most of the musicians reflect an Americana style, and each of the performers has Minnesota ties in one way or another, Johnson said.

This month Martin Zellar -- an alternative country musician whom Johnson describes as a "Minnesota music legend" -- will perform at the theater on Jan. 19.

"He does songs that anyone can relate to," Johnson said. "He's an amazing guitar player, and he has a unique voice."

Reflecting the parallel show season underway, a beach cottage for Lyric Arts' upcoming play, "The Dixie Swim Club," will provide the backdrop for Zellar's concert.

The last time Zellar was at the theater, the set resembled a living room, which gave the 220-seat auditorium a personal touch.

"It seemed like a winter night at someone's home," Johnson said.

Although the set varies for every performance, artists find it easy to carry on an informal conversation with the audience in the intimate auditorium. "We're so excited about giving the artists a chance to perform in a different way, kind of like Lyric Arts 'unplugged,'" she said.

Next up will be Rocket Club, which does "country rock with a pop edge." It will perform at the theater on Feb. 3.

The group "has a real opportunity to break through and become a national act. That's very exciting," Johnson said.

In coming up with the lineup, which also includes G.B. Leighton and Tim Mahoney, the Belfast Cowboys, Trailer Trash and Sister Shaw, the theater goes through the same type of process that it does for plays.

"It's a balancing act, knowing what the audience wants and bringing in things people would enjoy but might not know about," Johnson said.

Discovering new music

Kathy Davis, who lives in Ramsey, discovered Lyric Arts when an advertisement for its first full-fledged concert series caught her eye last year.

"It's a chance to see new artists perform," some of whom are up-and-coming talents, she said, adding that she only wishes the theater had more concerts.

For the recent holiday show with Alison Scott, she bought six tickets, a pair of which went to out-of-town friends. "They thought it was wonderful," she said, adding that one of her guests had been to the theater years ago when it was a movie house.

"I love the acoustics," Davis said. After going to concerts there, she's started going to some of the theater's plays as well.

"The quality of the performers is excellent for a community theater," and it's been fun running into neighbors and coworkers at the shows, she said.

Similarly, Monticello resident Char Hmurovich, who is a season subscriber to the theater's plays and concerts, found a new favorite band through the concert series -- the New Standards, a minimalist jazz trio, which played to a sold-out audience at Lyric Arts last year.

"It was so unique and so good, I told my daughter, 'I think I'm going to be [a fan] like a Deadhead,' " she said.

As for Lyric Arts, she said: "It's just the sweetest little theater. It's warm, friendly and relaxed."

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.