The following article appeared in the May 13, 1999 edition of The Acorn.
This is a local newspaper with a circulation of 37,000 in the Agoura Hills,
Calabasas, Oak Park and Westlake Village areas of Southern California.
(Please note that the article refers to the concerts as "free" but we do ask a $15 voluntary suggested donation per person, which goes directly to the performers.)
THIS MUSIC IS ON THE HOUSE
by John Loesing, Acorn Staff Writer
Russ and Julie know how to throw a party. Good eats, good friends, good tunes - but the gatherings aren't what you might think. When people get together at Russ and Julie's house in Oak Park, they come to hear the music first.
The couple hosts what are commonly known around the country as house concerts, in which accomplished, but not always well known musicians perform live in someone's living room. The audience can visit with the artists and hear the music in a laid back setting that could never be duplicated in a commercial club or large arena.
"There's something really special about meeting the people who bring the music. You don't see that at the Greek Theater or Universal Amphitheatre," said Julie, who runs a home based graphic design business with her husband. "It brings music down to the grass roots level which is where it really began."
On weekends when they can't bring the music to their home, the couple, both 36, often visit coffeehouses and other back door venues. They prefer atmospheres that are warm and cozy, and many of their friends feel the same way.
"We wouldn't go into a bar to listen to this," said guest Connie Gray, a music teacher at Oak Hills Elementary School in Oak Park. "We came last month, enjoyed it and decided to come back."
To get ready for their concerts, Russ and Julie lug the living room furniture out to the garage. Once the room is emptied, they unfold dozens of rented chairs and tuck them wall to wall. With that, Russ and Julie's house becomes a secret getaway for some of the finest music in the area.
During intermission, guests will visit with performers, or they might sample the dessert and coffee buffet in the dining room. A collection plate near the front door holds a pile of 10-dollar bills that helps keep the musicians happy. Some of the performers even have tee shirts or CDs for sale, but the effort by Russ and Julie is strictly non-profit.
Russ said he has about 150 people on his house concert database. Flyers go out in the mail regularly to let them know about upcoming shows. As for the music, "getting performers is easy," said Russ. "They'd love for there to be more places to play in the Conejo Valley, but there just aren't that many."
The music is rarely loud; in fact, next door neighbors are some of Russ and Julie's biggest fans. "It's nice. We can invite friends to our house and just bring them across the street to Russ and Julie's," said neighbor Corie Skolnick.
The couple's house concerts began two years ago with an appearance by former Motown songwriter Severin Browne. Russ attended a CD release party for Browne and asked him if he'd consider doing a show at his home. Browne accepted the invitation and later called the performance one of his most gratifying ever. He'll make a return to Russ & Julie's on May 22 along with partner James Coberly Smith.
If you haven't heard of these players you're not alone, but it doesn't matter. The hosts have yet to overstate their talent.
The group "SeeSaw" appeared recently, featuring the original sounds of Michael Monagan, a talented singer-songwriter. Joe Turano, fresh off a tour with Michael Bolton, sang and played keyboard, while Judy Rudin, a performer on the platinum selling 4 Non Blondes CD, played the harp. The three dozen or so in the audience enjoyed everything from mellow rock to Cajun and blues. Of the more than a dozen shows at Russ and Julie's so far, none has ever been rowdy. Many of the performances are unplugged, mellow, even folksy.
"It's exciting because we have a number of songs that are more pensive songs. The raucous songs we might shy away from," said Monagan. "It's a nice opportunity to do something that's intimate."
Monagan's inspiration is deep rooted; he teaches music to mentally disabled students at the Widney School in South Central Los Angeles. Under his wing, the kids even recorded a song for the 1998 KROQ Christmas album that was a top-seller in Southern California.
"It's success for them to go out and sing and have everybody respond," said Monagan, whose thoughtful style earned plenty of heartfelt applause during the recent two-hour show at Russ and Julie's.
The biggest turnout so far was for last October's appearance by the gifted John Hall, formerly with the '70s group, Orleans (Still the One, Dance With Me). Russ said about 80 people nestled into his living room that night as Hall played smoothly and brilliantly.
"His entire West Coast tour last year consisted of two gigs. One in Palm Springs and one at our house in Oak Park," Russ said proudly.
For more information about Russ and Julie's house concerts, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the couple's web site at www.jrp-graphics.com/houseconcerts.html
Beginners need not apply. The music is on the house, but there's nothing cheap about it.