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VOL. 37 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 23, 2013

Singing for their supper

Live music finds its way to the living room as Nashville artists join national House Party trend

By Tim Ghianni

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Nashville rock stalwart Tommy Womack has brought hard-rocking poetry and late-night joy to fan-jammed clubs and halls, large and legendary, for decades thanks to splendid outfits like much-lamented Government Cheese, the bis-quits and – currently – DADDY.

But these days, the 50-year-old – who holds his own opening for Americana wizard Todd Snider and cow-punkers Jason & The Scorchers – doesn’t rock so hard so often and so late, as he spends many nights with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulders working the singer-songwriter circuit’s House Concerts underground.

Womack is one of a slew of Nashville artists tapping this money vein that allows them to fill holes in both their schedules and bankrolls by performing for a score or more folks in someone’s living room, den or barn.

“A good house concert can be triple or quadruple of what you make playing in a bar in the same town,” says Womack of this national phenomenon. “And you always stay in the home (of the host). That’s another financial factor. You have no hotel costs. You do your gig. You are done by 10, done socializing by 10:20. In bed by 11. You get up and eat breakfast and are on your way.”

Rod Picott, who pretty much built his performing career by embracing the house concerts concept, agrees with Womack that the generosity of the hosts and the audience makes for a beneficial outing. “There is an altruistic element to most of the house concerts,” he says. “Most of the people who host the shows work really hard to make sure the artist has a much better payday than in town at a venue.”

Picott decided long ago that “instead of banging my head on the doors of venues, I began seeking out people who held house concerts. I was very proactive, sending CDs and telling people who I was. This kind of networking was sort of a way to walk in and make a living doing this thing.”

The ‘groundbreaker’

While many have not heard of them yet, house concerts are not a new idea. “The first time I heard of it was close to 20 years ago when Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens did a tour,” says Womack. “He’s a groundbreaker. He made overtures to his fans nationwide. “

In fact, the vocalist and guitarist for this other Jersey rock outfit built a whole tour out of his string of house concerts.

“That’s the first time I ever heard about a house concert. He was the one who reached out to his fans and found people who would do it,” says Womack, whose decades of recordings include the recent “Now What!,’’ which is literally a verbal sequel to everything that’s come before.

The house concert concept is pretty simple. Music fans reach out to their favorite artists to see if they’d be interested in performing for a circle of friends in a private home.

These hosts then line up the friends, generally at least 20, but some house parties can go into the hundreds if someone has spacious digs and concert space. These people all are then asked to bring a potluck dish, any alcoholic beverage if they desire and be prepared to put a suggested $20 into a tip jar. That is a pretty uniform amount, though some hosts suggest $15 and some artists suggest that the hosts suggest $25.

The tip jar is all emptied into the artist’s pockets. And the performers also sell plenty of CDs after wowing the captive audience from five feet away.

The artist – in most cases they are working these gigs solo – generally breaks potluck bread with the fans and then provides two 45-minute sets of uncommonly intimate entertainment.

‘Mr. House Concert’

Jon Byrd shares his vocal talents with fans in Chicago at Black Dog House Party concerts. Nashville artists make extra income at these at-home events.

-- Van Delisle

Most evenings, as Womack notes, end with the artist staying in the host’s extra bedroom and then enjoying breakfast before driving off to another performance, either in a private dwelling, on a club stage or in a smoke-filled roadhouse. Picott, considered by his Nashville colleagues to be “Mr. House Concert” for his focus on that particular type of entertainment, basks in house concerts’ intimacy. “There is something about the experience,” he says, adding that when he began “it was more nerve-racking (than club gigs) because of the proximity of the audience.”

Picott – who peaked at 80 house shows per year – enjoys the benefits of the smaller, more sober (heavy drinkers are not tolerated by hosts) interaction with the fans.

“It feels just enough formality to make it a show, but not so much to remove you from the audience,” he says. “One time in Wayne, N.J., the person sitting in front of me was literally a foot and a half away. I had to watch the neck of my guitar to make sure I didn’t whack the drink out of their hand….

“The only trouble I’ve run into at house concerts is that sometimes with neophyte hosts, you have to make sure as a performer that you define the difference between a house concert and a party,” Picott says. “If you want me to stand in the corner and play music while your friends get drunk, I’ll do that show, but that’s a lot more work for me and it’s going to cost you more.”

Womack says the audience generally is happy, because “they don’t have to wait and wait and wait for the act to start and deal with drunks (too often encountered at clubs). I’ve encountered two belligerent drunks in 10 years of playing house concerts.

“They come in with a good attitude because they trust the proprietor,” says Womack of the house concert fan base. “A good percentage of the audience will buy the records. They listen. They are quiet. It’s a good class of people.”

Something for the 50+ crowd

Womack says, these shows fill a void in popular entertainment. “There’s a whole segment of the audience that doesn’t want to go to bars any more. They don’t want to hear the opening act at 9. They want to hear me at 7,” he says.

“The youth market that is in bars, they aren’t into the singer-songwriter thing anymore. What I do – and what the Americana acts do – trends older. That’s fine by me, because I’m older. The people I attract are my age group, from 50 on up.”

Picott, who is touring in support of Welding Burns, agrees with the age assessment. “As a 48-year-old, I love playing at 7 o’clock at night. It’s just great. There’s nobody at the bar. No cappuccino machine. … They (the audience) do tend to be a slightly older crowd and that’s great. They are usually there to listen. They tend to be more patient.”

Jon Byrd, a 57-year-old whose Charlie Rich-dances-with -John Prine roots are well displayed on his current “Down at the Well of Wishes,’’ says the success of house concerts proves club-owners have “messed up” by allowing this niche to develop by not offering earlier live shows.

By clubs “all turning young,” a huge audience, Baby Boomers in particular, are, by lifestyle, left out of the traditional show scene, Byrd says. “The music scene, clubs, are not serving a part of the population. I don’t mean just geriatric people like us. People that work, that have real jobs, have children; they can’t go to a 9:20 show. It doesn’t make any sense.

Tommy Womack plays at-home concerts to fill holes in his schedule as do many Nashville singer-songwriters. Here he entertains a small crowd at the Hillbilly Haiku House Party in Lebanon, Tn.  

-- Ramcey Rodriguez

“In a house concert, it’s all gray-haired people,” he says. “That’s people with disposable income.”

Without house concerts – Byrd does approximately two per month – those gray-beards “don’t have anywhere to go to hear good, real, thoughtful, interesting music.”

Pulling down barriers

Amelia White has been fitting house concerts into her touring schedule for five years and has played for as few as 15 people and as many as 1,000 at these private affairs.

She performs at house shows only 25 percent of the time, but that is where she sees the majority of her more mature admirers. “It seems to me that a lot of them have been on the older side, which is cool,” says White, whose most recent album is “Beautiful and Wild,’’ the title song a nod to her late friend the brilliant Duane Jarvis. “I think that people who won’t go to venues will go to house shows.”

She thinks venues are missing out by not having early shows that cater to an audience that she believes is hungry for solid live entertainment.

Peter Cooper – who with duet partner Eric Brace has mixed a steady diet of house concerts and club gigs for about six years – says he has begun to see younger hosts, which translates to a different generation of house guests to see and hear the two do all the hits from their “Comeback Album.”

But, in general, he agrees with his cohorts on the type of fan who seeks out the house concert experience. “It just makes total sense and it has removed a lot of barriers that are there, a lot of the reasons why people might not go out to show,” says Cooper. “They tend to be fine to bring kids to, (so) you may not have to worry about a baby sitter.

“It’s rare (that) you can start playing at a club before 9 p.m., so if you are the headliner, you don’t start until 10:15. That’s difficult for people who have kids and need a babysitter or need to get up for work in the morning.”

White describes her immersion into the house concerts scene as “really organic.”

“It started with a couple of fans asking me after hearing about them and saying ‘would you want to do some?’

“I’ve been doing them for five years. I’ve played ones for 15 people, but then I played one for like 1,000 people. They can really be great for cash….It definitely helps so much.

“And the thing about house concerts that I found really rewarding is you make more of a connection with people. You are there in the room with them….”

‘Like a book club with music, live’

Such intimacy can have its drawbacks, but the rewards are greater. “The thing I find to be the best with the house show thing is I’ve realized how much good there is in people, how generous they are,” she says.

“Sometimes as an artist you feel that the arts aren’t appreciated and aren’t financially rewarded, but the house show people take you in and sometimes bestow you with gifts,” according to White.

“The other thing that’s really cool about house shows is it’s a concert, but it’s so organic. It’s a little gathering, often like groups of friends, like a book club with music, live. That’s really cool. I think it’s a good sign in our society that people are actually doing that, that people are actually hanging out and dining together and listening to music together and meeting other people. Pretty cool.”

Cooper – who performs solo from his upcoming Opening Day album and others if Brace is busy with his swinging and rootsy Last Train Home large band – says “house concerts increasingly are both important and enjoyable. It just makes a lot more sense to play in front of 50 people who are there for the express purpose of hearing you than to play for 100 people” where half the people are more interested in the entertainment offered by what’s in the glass or ice-frosted mug.

“At a house concert, people’s attention is focused on the performer and you wind up interacting in a personal way with audience members, which is helpful to those of us who are out there playing and is hopefully enjoyable to the people who come there,” says Cooper.

Playing the most intimate settings

Obviously house concerts are more for the wandering troubadour or duet than for a full band, because, well, it would be hard to have Jason & The Scorchers, for example, play Absolutely Sweet Marie in your living room without disturbing the neighbors.

As an aside: Warner Hodges, wildly entertaining lead guitarist for Nashville’s most legendary rock outfit, says he and the guys have tried the house concert circuit. “I have done one with Jason a few years ago. It’s not something I’m too familiar with, but wish I did more of them. The one I did was seriously fun.”

Of course, few living rooms could contain Jason & the Scorchers, but many of them are just the right space for folks like Amy Speace, who is pleased she made it into this underworld of the concert scene where word-of-mouth referrals are the biggest booking tool.

Speace – whose most recent effort, How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, is inspired by a non-Music Row-type writer named William Shakespeare – says she almost stumbled into the house concert world when she was at the International Folk Alliance Conference “about seven or eight years ago. I would be playing these tiny little shows that were in hotel rooms.

“There would be all these people who I knew were bookers from individual clubs, but scattered in there were all these random people with clipboards, taking notes.

“They would give you their card and it said ‘Some Random House Concert.’”

These scouts are house concert hosts looking for willing participants and also judging their ability to connect in a small space.

“I was booked to open for (New England folk artist) Ellis Paul,” as a result of the contacts she made. “This guy had a barn in back of his house that he had turned into a venue…. There were a few other house concert presenters who were at that show and the next concert I did was in someone’s living room. No sound system, no lighting, about 30 people with chairs and couches.

“I was the opener. I thought it was really funny that a house concert would have a headliner.”

‘Nobody is forced to pay.’

Speace soon learned that house concert presenters are picky. They generally aren’t going to invite their friends over to see an artist they themselves have never witnessed live. “Here I was in New York City, playing really good clubs, opening for Judy Collins, yet I could not get booked for someone’s house concert.”

Soon she was wise to this new source of income and realized that folk festivals around the country generally are covered up with “a ton of people who love folk and acoustic music who are there to find out who is the next person they want to book in a house concert.”

Now these are a vital portion of her career, with many shows booked a year in advance. Her only real “must” is that the host must guarantee at least 30 people will be there.

“The thing about house shows is that they can’t run as a business, ‘cause it’s a private home. They are not venues. They are not making any money off it. These are volunteer people who want to spread the word.

“Nobody is forced to pay.”

Yet the tip jars and CD sales have proven an important piece of the puzzle when artists plot their tours, and Speace, like many of her comrades, liberally peppers her agenda with them to help pay her way: “These people have become an essential part of the fabric of my life.”

As this alternative concert experience has grown, there are web tools, like houseconcerts.com that bring artists and hosts together.

But still, most performers get their bookings thanks to the grapevine that has both hosts and artists comparing notes on which are the good places to play and which artists can deliver in intimate settings.

“The nice thing about a house concert is there is no overhead to deal with, other than the cost of travel to get there. You aren’t paying a sound man and there’s not a wait staff to worry about like in a bar. There’s nothing off the top. If 50 people come and pay 20 bucks apiece that’s $1,000,” says Cooper. “If 50 people come to a club and pay the $20 ticket charge, you would make considerably less than $1,000.”

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