November 8, 1999 edition of the NEW YORK TIMES:
Acoustic Music, Live From the Living Room
(These days, the best seat in the house may really be in the house.)
By NEIL STRAUSS
DURHAM, N.C., November 6, 1999 -- In more than 30 years of touring, the Texas singer Ray Wylie Hubbard had seen far more professional-looking spaces than the one he performed at on Wednesday evening. The stage lighting consisted of a single black desk lamp clamped to the top of a chipped window frame. And the backstage area was a small bedroom where guitars rested against the wall next to a vacuum cleaner.
This was clearly no ordinary club: it was the home of Chris Elliott and Carolyn Maynard. And for two hours that night 80 music fans, most of them strangers who had bought $10 tickets to the sold-out performance, camped out in the couple's living room and ate their food.
House concerts, as these events are known, have recently blossomed into a full-fledged national movement. From Seattle to Waco to Queens, more than 300 homeowners have become part-time concert promoters turning their living rooms into mild-mannered clubs for a night, and scores of performers are discovering that they can make good livings simply by touring these private residences.
At a time when live performance outlets in many places are drying up because of hostility from the police and community groups, house concerts are becoming the most exciting and vital alternative-performance circuit around for acoustic musicians, with some shows selling out in just an hour or two. They are luring an audience that professional concert promoters have given up on: fans in their 30's and 40's, many of whom shun the impersonal, smoky, uncomfortable late-night club environment and prefer the familial intimacy of a living room concert.
"Part of the reason for the boom of house concerts right now is people are so hungry for community but lacking in ways they can get together with other people in an intimate or friendly way that isn't commercialized," said Dave Nachmanoff, a singer-songwriter from Southern California who began performing house concerts a year and a half ago after finding out about them on the Internet. "That's why when people go to their first house concert, they're amazed that people can do something like this. I've done a lot of shows where by the end of the night I've known every person in the audience at least by their first name."
The hosts of these concerts are generally ordinary people who like music and don't mind handprints on the wallpaper. By day Mr. Elliott, 44, works for a computer company and Ms. Maynard, 43, is a schoolteacher. But once a month, with the help of a local college radio disc jockey, they become music promoters, plastering the city with posters advertising concerts in their living room by relatively well-known singer-songwriters like Mr. Hubbard, writer of the honky-tonk shout-along "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother."
And Mr. Elliott and Ms. Maynard are not alone in Durham. Steve and Celeste Gardner hold a concert series in their home nearby. Last month, in an effort to give the performances more legitimacy, the Gardners even turned their house into a nonprofit corporation, complete with a board of directors and an advisory committee.
For the musicians, who range from up-and-comers who can't get a club date to some of acoustic music's most celebrated musicians, like Bela Fleck and David Wilcox, the cover charge at house concerts is generally higher than at clubs. Because most homeowners already have jobs and are happy just to have these performers in their living rooms, they usually give them all the door money. In addition, the audience is generally more attentive, more enthusiastic, and more willing to buy CD's after the show.
But there is a dark side: house concerts stand on shaky legal ground. Rob Bookman, the counsel for the New York Nightlife Association, said that in most communities homes are zoned as residential areas, and when a homeowner charges people to enter a residence, the homeowner is running a business. In addition, Mr. Bookman said, "there are strict standards of safety for places with live entertainment, and most residences don't meet those standards."
Many people who present house concerts remain unaware of local ordinances -- "I just put on my blinders," Mr. Gardner said -- and promoters and artists say they haven't heard of anyone who has had problems with the police, with lawsuits or even with complaining neighbors.
"In our community, I wouldn't think anything like that would come up," said Glen Duckett, a computer programmer who runs a house concert series called "Flowers in the Desert" in Brenham, Texas, an hour outside of Houston. "The fire marshal has been in my home for a concert. I look at it this way: we're not any different than a Tupperware party. Someone is coming in to present wares and make money, and someone holding the party gets a few free dishes. In my case, I always get a free CD."
Though house concerts seem like a throwback to a time before the rise of the nightclub and concert hall in America, their rejuvenation is largely a result of technology. The Internet has made it possible for those who run house concerts to promote the shows at no cost, keep in contact with one another and hunt down possible performers.
"We have about 90 places around the country that hold house concerts listed on our Web site, and we believe that it's very possible that there are three or four times that many going on around the nation," said Mr. Duckett, .who runs the Web site www.houseconcerts.com.
There may be even more house concerts than Mr. Duckett imagines, thanks to a new twist on the idea developed by Kimberli Ransom, a 30 year-old singer-songwriter known by fellow musicians as the queen of house concerts. Instead of performing in the established circuit of living rooms, Ms. Ransom schedules her own tours by talking fans -- and their friends and relatives -- who have never organized a house concert into letting her play.
During each tour Ms. Ransom asks fans, when they add themselves to her mailing list, to indicate whether they are interested in being a host for one of her folk-rock concerts. Then, before her next tour, she calls those who expressed interest, explains how a house concert works and sends them a packet of information. Through this technique she has performed 150 house concerts in the last year and a half. She has even picked up a sponsor, Jim Beam Bourbon, which fronted her $2,200 for tour expenses, and she has written what may be the first book on the phenomenon, "House Concerts: A Guide for Musicians and Hosts."
This word-of-mouth tour, as she calls it, germinated when she decided to release records on her own instead of through a small music label. "I wanted to go national," she said, "and I was willing to do what I had to: give up my house and my day job and live on the road. So I thought, 'How would it be possible to do this without a record label?' And the answer was obvious: my fans. So I'm playing in the homes of my fans. And not just that, their friends. They'll see on my itinerary that I'm going through somewhere and send my CD to a friend or relative who lives there. And 99 percent of the people who host me want to do it again. I now have a schedule that takes me through July."
Besides being able to build a more loyal and far-flung fan base than is possible through club shows, house concert musicians like Ms. Ransom also enjoy being pampered by their hosts, who often feed them home-cooked meals and put them up comfortably for the night. As a general rule, house concert presenters are much more grateful hosts than club owners.
"My wife and I just pinch ourselves that these people are in our living room sometimes," said Tim Blixt, a park superintendent who presents concerts in his log cabin in Wayne, N.J., by musicians like Cliff Eberhardt, Cheryl Wheeler and Jimmy LaFave. "I'm convinced that the people we present in our living room are the most talented people making music today."
One could probably trace house concerts to any point in history, from recent research suggesting that Neanderthals were blowing flutes in caves to the classical recitals that continue to this day. In early America, the home was a cradle of music: there were soirees at antebellum plantations and dances at country cabins with local fiddlers. Before he found national fame as a blues musician, Muddy Waters became a local celebrity by turning his Mississippi Delta cabin into a raucous juke joint for music and moonshine.
The modern house concert, however, emerged only a few years ago. Such shows had existed for decades, but only recently -- thanks in part to the success of slightly older houseconcert series like Rouse House in Austin and Urban Campfires in San Antonio -- have there been enough of them, linked via the Internet, to constitute an actual circuit and scene. Small towns, rural areas and suburbs with no clubs for acoustic music now regularly bring in touring performers.
Most house performances follow the same format: the concerts are promoted through the Internet, fliers, word of mouth and sometimes local newspapers or college radio stations, all of which include the phone number but not the address of the home. Tickets range from $5 to $25, and the show begins between 7 and 8 p.m. Anywhere from 10 to 100 people might attend.
Occasionally the show is preceded by a potluck dinner, a catered meal or, in the case of one series in an 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut, carriage rides and stew. Living rooms are preferred to yards and porches because they are more intimate and the acoustics are better; smoking is generally forbidden, and the availability of alcohol varies. The concert begins with an introduction by the host, and then the performer plays two 45-minute sets, with a break for snacking, socializing and CD-selling. The only expenses for the host are optional ones -- renting folding chairs, buying refreshments, copying fliers and so on.
Some houses are much nicer than others, and some hosts, like Jimmy Riddle, a 39-year-old psychiatrist in Columbia, S.C., take their concerts much more seriously than others.
The night after his house concert in Durham, Mr. Hubbard drove to Columbia to perform at Mr. Riddle's beautiful turn-of-the-century home. As Mr. Riddle prepared for the show by removing his 18th-century vases from their pedestals and sitting in each of the 41 chairs he had arranged to make sure the legroom was ample and the sightlines were good, his mother, Nell, stood in the kitchen cooking sausages, making sandwiches and heating apple cider.
"These cups are too small," she said, shaking her head. "That's what happens when you send Jimmy out to do something."
With family photographs still on display on the coffee table, Mr. Riddle began greeting his guests, collecting $12.50 from each person. One was Garry Cockerill, 42, a dry-cleaning supply salesman who read about the concert in a newspaper and drove 45 minutes from Sumter, S.C., blasting Mr. Hubbard CD's out of his convertible the whole way. It was Mr. Cockerill's first house concert.
"I couldn't believe my ears when he said it was going to be in his house," Mr. Cockerill said. "I kept laughing, 'You're telling me that you're going to have Ray Wylie Hubbard in your living room?' "
But by the time he left the mesmerizing and often humorous two-hour show, Mr. Cockerill had been converted. "That was something else," he said, clutching a newly bought, freshly autographed CD by Mr. Hubbard. "I'll definitely be back for the next one."