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

At-home gigs can create level of stress

By Tim Ghianni | Correspondent

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Amelia White of East Nashville performs at an at-home concert in Chicago.

-- Van Delisle

Jon Byrd is quick to praise house concerts for providing an income source for a wandering country heartache troubadour.

As his songs are filled with lonesome truths, he is not shy about looking at the house concerts through clearer-than-rose-colored glasses.

“A house concert is essentially a 36-hour meet-and-greet,” he says, noting that most of the hosts are supportive and try to allow the artist room to breathe. However, the mere fact the performer arrives before a potluck supper, dines with host and guests, visits with the fans between the two 45-minute sets and often is in a position where he or she is “expected” – or feels obliged – to sit up and have drinks with the host afterward can cause discomfort.

“I often joke about it, with my friends who do this, that a house concert is the only thing that can make you miss a smelly, wretched green room and surly sound engineer,” he says.

“A lot of people assume that just because you are an artist or a performer, you are an extrovert,” he says. Many more-retiring performers – Byrd, for instance – turn their “extrovert” switch when the spotlight is on, but otherwise need some space.

“There’s something about the intimacy of it that I’m not always sure you bargained for when you sat down and wrote the song you are singing,” he says.

“This can be incredibly stressful. What does it have to do with the music really? Then it turns into this thing and you wake up the next morning and you go ‘Oh, God. I’m still here,’ because they are kind enough to put you up.

“Now that (place to sleep) is worth $150 to a performer, money he doesn’t have to spend, so that’s real support. But sometimes there’s cats and sometimes there’s kids,” Byrd says.

And while some house concert hosts have special guest rooms for their troubadours, other times the performer finds himself sleeping in a room made vacant for him. “There are all kinds of things we (house concert performers) joke about and laugh about, like sleeping in a 7-year-old’s bed,” Byrd says.

“There’s the assumption of intimacy when you do a house concert,” he says. “You know there’s going to be this little meal before and you have to talk to people.

“And, of course, they are very envious of what you are doing, though they don’t know the costs. They’ll say ‘it must be great traveling and meeting new people’ and I’ll say ‘it must be great to be able to afford health insurance or a mortgage or drive a nice car.’”

He acknowledges that spewing out the potential negatives makes him “sound like the most ungrateful s..t-heel, because these really are people who give a damn about your music.”

While he’s actually hungry to add more house concerts to his agenda, he notes he’s simply telling the truth here that the major discomfort potentially faced by these living room pickers is a matter of “boundary” or lack of same. “You are at the mercy of people’s idea of respect and not everyone has the same definition of that.”

‘The gig that never ends’

Amelia White, among the most charming folks in the singer-songwriter world, finds house concerts more rewarding than public gigs because “you make more of a connection with people.”

But they also can be trying because of that connection. “It’s kind of the gig that never ends,” she says, with a sprightly laugh. “That can be the hard thing about it. There is really no green room.”

She believes a big part of her job at house concerts is “to hang with people.” Yet, she hankers for a few minutes of privacy.

“It can be a little bit strenuous,” she says. “I try to let people know up front in a polite way: ‘Look I’ve been on the road.’ I try to warn them that, depending on how I’m feeling and how many miles I drove; I might need a little bit of space.”

She also needs time away from the crowd to tend to matters like email and other bookings. For the most part, she has found her hosts more than eager to give her the space.

Amy Speace has found the best way to handle the awkwardness of waking up in a kids’ bed is to stay at motels. “I used to, but I don’t stay with strangers. If I know them, I’m happy to stay with them.”

She is unwilling to cope with hosts who think she should be happy to stay up and jam with guests until 3 a.m.

“After you do a two-set show you are just tired. You have to be careful and state your boundaries in a really gracious way: ’This is what I need in order to do my job.’”

She also isn’t shy about pushing for pre-show space. “I do ask if I can go to my room ahead of time,” she says. “If I’ve driven five hours, I might have to take a nap.”

To her, house concerts are “70 percent magic, 30 percent pain in the ass,” but she plans on peppering her schedule with them.

Interactions

House concerts’ reigning superstar Rod Picott knows better than most anyone that the lack of formality and the proximity of the fans can lead to dicey situations. “People are great if you give them the chance to be. The exception seems to be people who are hobbyists, people who maybe play a little guitar or they write a little bit or they sing songs at the open mike nights, people who sort of dabble in the thing.

“Since it’s always fun for them, they think of it only in terms of fun. They forget the part where you have driven seven hours to get there; it took an hour and a half to set up. Your day has already been 10 or 11 hours long.

“I did a show in Paris (Tennessee’s catfish capital, not the place with the Eiffel Tower) that went really well. We are at the guy’s house after the show. He owns a CD store. He says: ‘Get your guitars out and play me a song.’ I said ‘we’ll get our guitars out and play some more if you open up your CD store. Do you want to do your job at 11 at night?’”

Peter Cooper is a brown-whiskey-glass-half-full fellow when he talks about the “the interaction” when a musician is performing in people’s homes.

“For performers who like interacting with people, then there’s no drawback … If you are antisocial and don’t want to talk to the 15-year-old aspiring guitar player about chord progressions, then that could be a hassle.

“There are people out there who like to go into a cocoon on the road. I understand that. But some folks who have hosted us at house concerts have become real friends.”

Don’t expect press

The concerts can help fund a career, but they do little other in terms of career building, according to the artists.

“You can’t get press,” says Speace. “The challenge is if you are an artist and you do mostly house concerts, you might not be known by mainstream music scene, but you are beloved by the 2,000 people who come to see you.”

Picott found himself playing too many house concerts and not enough club gigs, which means he got almost no publicity in area newspapers or on local websites.

“Aside from the 30 people (at the concert), no one knows I’m in town,” he says adding that he cut back some on the house concerts for this very reason. “I realized that over the years I have shortchanged myself in terms of publicity.”

It cost him. “I’m still a rumor,” he says, adding he now adds more club gigs simply because he needs the publicity such performances can get him.

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