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COLUMN EIGHTY-THREE, JANUARY 15, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
RXH in Washington Post, 10/25/02
Date: Fri, 25 Oct 2002 16:56:41 -0400
out the link, there's a picture of us performing at a house concert!
the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Falls Church, I park and make my
way up the winding brick path to the front door of a house I've never
the window I see a crowd of people, wine glasses in hand, and I don't even knock
before turning the doorknob and walking in. I'm a stranger but don't feel at all
out of place among these folks, who ignore me as I walk among them. I wander
over to a dining room table filled with food -- cheese, chips, dip, lasagna,
chili -- and load up a plate. I pour some excellent merlot (Lindemans Bin 40,
not cheap) into a plastic cup and make my way down a short flight of stairs. I
join a few dozen people in a rec room lit by two standing halogen lamps and plop
myself onto a folding chair, one of about 50 aligned in rows.
smile to the couple next to me, and when they both smile back I ask, "Do
you go to many house concerts?"
concerts are exactly what those two words say -- concerts that people hold in
their houses -- and they've become something of a nationwide phenomenon during
the past 10 years. While there has always been live music in homes -- classical
drawing room salons, rural front-porch hoedowns, Harlem rent parties, rock bands
in basements -- the current style of house party has flourished
because of a confluence of circumstances, the primary one being the
graying of the baby boomers.
are people who grew up with music as a central part of their lives, who used to
hit the club scene regularly, who still buy new music and who have succeeded
enough in their careers to own a decent-size home.
these are people whom the machinery of pop culture routinely ignores. They're
too old for Britney, they don't care about Celine Dion, they prefer their music
mostly acoustic, they don't like smoky clubs where it's hard to find a seat or a
parking space, and they're
proactive enough to search for an alternative.
second key factor in the rise of house concerts has been the Internet, where
people can find musical acts that might be up for playing a house concert, where
they can find like-minded folks to become potential audiences, where they can
promote shows and, in some instances, where the initial inspiration for a house
concert can be found.
Litowitz is an intellectual property lawyer in Washington who's been hosting
nationally known musicians in his living room for more than four years -- a
performance series he's dubbed "Live at Roxy's" (Roxy is the family
dog). "It was all made possible by the wonders of the Internet," he
says. "I'm a big music fan and came across something on a music discussion
board talking about a 'house concert' in California, and I had no idea what they
were talking about. I put 'house concert' into a search engine and found this
amazing world where people around the country were having concerts in their
homes, which was a totally foreign concept to me at the time."
day later, Litowitz heard an interview with singer Ana Egge on his car radio,
"and I put two and two together," he says. "I'd never heard of
her before, but she was good, and I used to book acts into the coffeehouse at
college, so I thought, 'I'll book a show, and it will happen to be at my house.'
" He wrote a letter to Egge's manager, and after a few e-mails and phone
calls, there she was in Litowitz's living room in Bethesda, playing in front of
was a Thursday night, and she was on tour and was in between someplace and
someplace, and it made sense to do it," Litowitz says. He invited his
friends and friends of friends he thought would enjoy Egge, asked for $15 at the
door, put out some wine and cheese and played the happy host. "She made a
fortune," he says proudly. "And we had a great concert."
are about a dozen people in the Washington area who regularly present house
concerts, and the home I've strolled into without knocking belongs to Beth
Auerbach and Norman Stewart. They host mostly local and regional folk
performers, bringing them in every three months or so. They call their concert
series the "Sleepy Hollow Folk Club." The night I'm there, those 50
folding chairs are arranged to face Charlottesville songwriter/guitarist Terri
Allard, joined by her frequent musical sidekick, Gary Green, on harmonica.
duo plays for about 40 minutes, then takes a break. Allard walks up to the
kitchen ready to do commerce. With a warm smile on her face and a kind word for
every fan, she sells disc after disc, inscribing them all, often with something
personal learned while conversing with the buyer. They all sign her e-mail list
for future gig announcements and walk away happy, pouring themselves another
beer, soda or glass of wine before the second set begins.
each paid $12 to attend the concert, money that sits in an upside-down black
felt top hat near the door. All of it goes to the performers, and combined with
the money from CD sales, Allard and Green drive away at the end of the night
with more than $1,000, a figure much higher than most folk clubs or coffeehouses
could guarantee them.
have done a lot of house concerts the past few years," Allard says,
"and it's so wonderful for a musician. They're sort of a break from the
normal touring thing -- you don't have to worry about sound systems, how many
people have paid at the door, what the beer sales are. To some extent it takes
the business and the politics out of the music. It's still business, I guess,
but you're just hanging out in someone's house, and the people who host them
really, really love musicians, and they really just want to help out."
admits to being skeptical when first presented with an offer to play at
someone's house. "I generally love playing with a sound system and thought
it would sound bad without one, and I didn't know how comfortable I'd feel in
someone's living room." Then after performing a few, she felt liberated.
"There's no microphone to hide behind, and it's amazing what happens when
it's not there. You sing to the audience, not to the microphone. It's a very
different experience than say, playing at Wolf Trap or some other large concert
that intimacy that gives house concerts their power, something made very clear
when Allard tells a sad (but hopeful) story about her sick brother and asks the
audience to sing along to a song she wrote for him. All those sympathetic voices
on the chorus is something I've rarely heard in a club.
Swan, a local folk singer who has performed at half a dozen house concerts and
also books performers into a friend's house (the "House Concerts at the
View"), says intimacy is a house concert's greatest reward. "What I
loved most about it when I started playing house concerts was that there wasn't
the barrier of the stage, the lights, the sound equipment you normally find
between a performer and the audience," she says. "There's always some
sort of invisible wall in a real venue, where you don't get to interact with
people, and the audience feels nervous about coming up to talk to you, but at
house concerts you're really part of the crowd. By the time you go on, you've
already talked with a lot of the people, gotten to know them, their names,
things about them."
says she first heard about house concerts a few years ago, attending and then
performing at the home of Scott and Paula Moore. The Rockville couple began
their "Moore Music (In the House)" concert series after Scott Moore
researched house concerts for a story printed in Weekend six years ago.
an editor for The Post's KidsPost page, Moore says that once he was exposed to
house concerts he was hooked. "I fell in love with them, and we went to
bunches of shows before we hosted our own," he says. "We were content
with going to shows, especially at the Panzers [Steve and Sherry Panzer in
Columbia]. But there were people we'd see at their house who we wanted to see
again, and there were people that we liked but who they didn't know about, so we
thought, 'If we're going to see these people, we're going to have to host them
has now become one of the gurus of the local house music scene, helping others
organize and book shows, giving advice, holding "how-to" meetings, and
working with the internationally known Washington-based Folk Alliance on some of
the larger issues facing house concerts and their presenters.
of the big questions facing presenters is whether house concerts are legal in a
given jurisdiction, a question that hinges mainly on the cover charge. Moore
says it's important that the door charge -- usually between $5 and $20 -- be a
"suggested donation" rather than a formal cover charge. "I know
some hosts that don't even touch the money," Moore says. "Guests put
it in a box or basket or whatever, and the performer takes it himself, so the
hosts can say they had nothing to do with it." He likens house concerts to
Tupperware parties, a chance for people to be exposed to a product, in this case
live music, to see if they want to take some of that product (CDs) home with
them. He stresses that presenters have to be diplomatic with neighbors about
noise and parking.
issue facing hosts is that of royalty payments to (primarily) ASCAP and BMI, the
two largest collection and distribution agents for songwriting royalties.
"I know some house concerts
have been approache by those organizations about paying some fixed royalty
amount to them," Moore says, "but I haven't heard of any of them
actually paying. The Folk Alliance has been negotiating with ASCAP and BMI for
two or three years on behalf of house concerts and smaller venues like
coffeehouses to see if there's a fair way to pay royalties and to make sure they
go to the performers. But right now, the way the payment structures are set up;
that's not going to happen, so house concerts have a problem with that, since
we're set up exactly for the purpose of directly helping the artist."
the biggest concern of every presenter is security. If you're inviting 50 people
into your house on a regular basis, isn't that asking for trouble? "I
figure it's a sort of self-selection process," Litowitz says. "If
somebody is going to take the trouble to come to your house to hear an artist
like Terri Hendrix or Michelle Malone, you're going to be coming because of the
music. You make the leap of faith that fans of that kind of music are going to
presenters don't put their addresses on their Web sites -- the primary
advertising tool for house concerts -- and ask that scheduled performers don't
put concert addresses on their sites either. Instead, people interested in
attending have to e-mail the presenters and reserve a seat, a process that
usually involves a back and forth of e-mails that allows presenters to take the
measure of the potential attendee before divulging the location.
says that to be on the safe side, she recently pulled from her Web site a photo
of Lynn Vermillera, the host of the "Concerts at the View" series she
books. "It was a beautiful picture of Lynn with her son, but she asked me
to take it down, because you just never know. Maybe someone would come out just
because they saw her picture."
worst thing anyone I talked to about house concerts could remember happening was
a drunk having to be thrown out, but everyone acknowledges that bad things could
happen. "I hate to dwell on that part," Moore says. "But if
you're paranoid about it, just don't invite 50 people into your house."
some artists, the trouble can come from the presenters themselves. As the
Kennedys, Pete and Maura Kennedy are one of Washington's best-known pop music
exports and have played dozens of house concerts across the country. "For
some hosts, it's a social event, and they want you to stay up late with them
after the show, keeping a jam session going," Maura says. "They don't
understand how tired you get on tour, how you have to get to bed and
recharge." While many house concert hosts offer a room to touring acts,
Pete Kennedy says the smartest thing is to
book a hotel room. "You make clear that the performance ends at a
certain time, then you head to the hotel," he says. "We've definitely
had a couple of hellish experiences staying with promoters, but nothing we
guitarist Jeff Lang says he ended his house concert career after just one
performance. "This guy would come to every gig I played, then he called my
manager and said he wanted to have me play at his place," Lang says.
"I said okay and did it, and after I was finished I packed up to leave, not
understanding there was this implicit thing that I should stay there and have a
barbecue with him or something. I left and he hasn't been to a gig since. It was
like, 'Bugger you if you're not going to be my mate. I booked you to be my
friend, and now you don't want to be my mate, well fine.' It made me very wary
of those type of shows."
Pete Kennedy, however, the benefits far outweigh any potential downside, and the
Kennedys continue to make house concerts a part of any tour. "They're
complementary to club dates, and in some ways more important," Pete says.
"Because the people that come to house concerts are the most passionate,
they're the tastemakers in a way. There may be only 25 or 50 people there, but
that's all you need if they buy the records and play them for all their friends
and tell them to see this particular band the next time they're in town. That's
exactly what you hope for."
points out that these events are important for audiences, too. "They're an
essential part of the experience," he says. "These audiences want to
interact with each other and reinforce the things they believe in. They find
people with similar tastes and get to find out more about the music by talking
to each other. In that way they're a lot like punk rock audiences. They know
they're in an alternative world to the mainstream, and they realize their
presence is as important as the music."
Pete should mention the punk scene, because the other musical universe that has
made live shows at private residences a mainstay of performance calendars is the
punk rock world. For more than two decades Washington area punks have embraced a
do-it-yourself ethic that has always included shows in alternative spaces, and
one of the most popular of those has been people's homes.
this area there are at least a half-dozen houses that are the site of punk rock
shows on a regular basis, usually about once a month. These differ from
the singer/songwriter house concerts in that they're all in group houses, all
rental properties, and they're generally not the most well-kept of domiciles.
called the Dirt Farm for a reason," says Josh Fisk about his home in
Adelphi, where he books punk, metal, thrash and other raucous bands several
nights a month. "The main
reason I started doing it after I moved here about a year ago from Louisiana, is
that in New Orleans it seemed there were 10
times as many shows I wanted to see than what I found in D.C.," Fisk says.
"That surprised me, since this was such a hardcore and punk capital. I
didn't find much DIY stuff going on, and I'd say the clubs in D.C. are
definitely not doing a good job, as far as this kind of music is
says the police have come by a few times, but he's never been shut down.
"We've done some soundproofing, since it gets kind of loud, but not that
loud. And as long as we end everything by 9 p.m. we're fine, that's the law.
After that, they could get us on noise complaints."
Richards of local punk favorites Q and Not U (and a part-time Washington Post
copy aide) hosted some shows at the Kansas House (on Kansas Street in Arlington)
when he lived in that group house and says house shows (punks don't call them
house concerts) were essential to the band's growth. "When we were starting
out, we used to play them all the time in D.C.," Richards says, "and
you really get a lot out of those shows. There's no barrier between the band and
the audience. You get a more intimate show, maybe a better one than at a club.
Definitely a more memorable show."
says he would ask people to donate money, all of which (like at house concerts)
would go to the bands. "That money is especially important if the bands are
on tour," Richards says. "We just want to try to get them to the next
town with food and gas money."
of Richards's housemates at the Kansas House, Bob Massey (also a part-time
Washington Post copy aide), says that he had to make some rules when things
started getting out of hand. "Sure, we absolutely worried about having a
hundred people come in and trashing the place," he says. "When I was
there we did 20 to 30 shows, and they started out pretty free-form, then we had
to institute some guidelines: no smoking in the house, we cleared out the
furniture, we made sure people didn't drink in the yard, we took some
soundproofing steps, we tried to be vigilant about underage drinking."
Long plays bass and percussion with the local punk/noise band Black Eyes and
says that half the shows on the band's most recent two-week tour were house
shows. "It's an environment that we as a band really like," Long says.
"We've been together just over a year, and it's easier to play house shows
than to get gigs at clubs; but beyond that, it's a really fun environment to
play in." Even though Black Eyes has made it to the top of the local club
scene, playing the Black Cat with regularity, Long says, "We'll still try
to play houses as much as possible."
a thought echoed by New York-based
rocker Richard X. Heyman, a performer in his early forties who has discovered
house concerts only in the past year and has embraced them. "I don't see
why we can't mix it up, some clubs, some house concerts," Heyman says.
"We've been going out on these mini-tours, a week long, and doing a club
date one night, then doing a house concert the next afternoon."
the homeowners are up for it, Heyman will bring the whole band in and rock out.
"We did one out on Long Island, the whole thing was catered, I brought my
p.a. system, and we did the show like we were doing a club concert, and in a way
it was the best of both worlds. We had a great environment for the show with an
attentive audience, and no one was telling us to turn it down just because we
happened to be in someone's house."
house concert presenters are willing to book a full rock band, so Heyman and his
wife, Nancy (his bass player), often perform as a duo. "It's great to get
out of the clubs sometimes," he says. "They've got a built-in culture
clash going on. Basically they're in the business of selling liquor, while
you're trying to do something creative and artistic, supposedly, and it's a
strange dichotomy. They've always been a difficult environment to work in, while
house concerts are geared totally toward one thing, your performance, and that's
kind of nice, to say the least."
for the artist, nice for the audience, nice for the host. They all have a part
in (as the expression says) keeping it real. They're involved in something that
is real, based on actual human interaction, a rare quality in our pop culture
landscape littered with digital downloads and lip-synched live
"performances." Because of that, house concerts and their punk
cousins, house shows, will never disappear. The intimacy they offer fulfills a
need that club shows can seldom, if ever, fill.
focus is on the music," says Eric Sorensen, a defense contractor who has
hosted a few performers, including Heyman, in his Falls Church home, "and
because of that I can only imagine the number of house concerts -- in every
genre -- growing. People want to see the creative process up close, and by
providing this kind of coffeehouse atmosphere in our home, we offer them a place
to see that, in a setting that no club could replicate."
Folklore Society of Greater Washington has been hosting house concerts in
members' homes since the mid-'60s and you can reach them at 301-776-4314 or www.fsgw.org.
The Washington-based World Folk Music Association has links to area house
concert presenters at www.wfma.net/DCvenues.htm
or you can reach them at 800-779-2226. There's a nationwide resource at www.houseconcerts.com
which includes listings of Washington, Virginia and Maryland house
generally can reach presenters only via the Internet, as most concert hosts
don't give out their addresses or phone numbers until you've made contact via
e-mail. Here are some links to local house concert series:
(click on "The View" button)
an organization called the Mid-Atlantic Coalition of Folk Music Presenters is
re-forming soon, and promises to be a keeper of much house concert information,
so keep searching the Web for information on them.
the punk rock side, houses that hold rock shows come and go, but you can find
listings of current house shows in the area at www.pheer.com
. Look for listings for the Kansas House, the Dirt Farm, the Disarm House, the
Hideaway House, Genatalia's House and the Tree Swing House.
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