They’re held in basements, living rooms, backyards and garages. You may see toddlers wandering onstage and dogs napping within the audience. Usually, drinking, dancing and singalongs erupt. Occasionally, though, stringent rules apply, with people ushered to seats and told to “Listen now, drink and talk later.” Regardless of how they’re organized, house concerts — an artist or band performing at someone’s home, rather than a bar or concert hall — have been a growing trend for the past five years.
As eclectic as house concerts can be, a few things are standard. People expect to pay cash, which usually goes straight to the artist, although hosts will sometimes take a small amount to cover pop, coffee and audio equipment. Kids get in free, and you need to bring your own booze, lawn chairs and possibly a potluck item. Hosts often lodge the artists. And, often, people leave the events with many new friends.
Doug Freeze, who has opened his Bowness backyard and garage to about 40 concerts, had never attended a house show until he invited Austin songwriter Slaid Cleaves to play to a yard full of people on a sultry August night in 2003. Now, Freeze’s 200-person e-mail list gathers audiences for about a dozen concerts yearly, featuring Romi Mayes, Rodney DeCroo, Scott Nolan, Mike Stack and others. Some are better attended than others — a double-bill with Roger Marin and Hayes Carll drew 120 people, but when Scott Normandy’s gig was hit with a blizzard, only 14 souls braved the roads.
Freeze and his audiences are respectful of his neighbours, and he’s never had a crowd get out of hand, although the police have dropped by on occasion to good-naturedly ask him to lower the volume. He says the intimacy is attractive for both listeners and artists.
“[The band gets] an attentive audience with no big-screen TVs, VLTs [or] cash registers to try and cut through to reach some ears. They sell an incredible amount of merch [percentage wise], plus they don’t have to pack down their gear and get rolling to the next town for the most part. Many wouldn’t be able to tour without house concerts supplementing their income — otherwise they would need a hotel room [and] food.”
Cleaves, who is currently touring to support his upcoming record, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, agrees. “They often offer the artist a better deal than a club, with all its overhead costs, can provide,” he says. “It’s a good option for a developing artist, because you don’t need an agent or manager or publicist to do well. The audience gets to leave a lot of music club hassles behind — city parking, high drink prices, rowdy patrons, late starts, smoky rooms. In addition, the audience gets a good seat, an intimate setting and usually some face time with the artist.”
Edmontonians Bruce and Julie Woytuik approach their hosting duties in a more formalized manner. They have a website outlining their expectations, focusing on respectful listening from their guests. Their concerts are always held inside, and artists get paid all of the proceeds from the door and whatever they make from merchandise, minus $100 to cover costs. “Our patrons are all lovers of acoustic music,” Bruce says. “Probably 50 per cent don’t even know the artist. They just come for the music and atmosphere. Most are boomers that remember the era of coffee houses.”
Web research analyst Sibavaughn Wiley estimates she has attended more than 30 house concerts. A self-professed professional listener, she volunteers at music festivals and folk clubs and attends at least a gig a week. She heard about her first house concert on CKUA radio six years ago and was soon addicted.
“Very few shows ever give me the delight and joy I get from those backyard concerts, with grass under your feet, blankets and lawn chairs, and really, really great people around you,” she says. “One of my favourite memories was during a Scott Nolan gig at Doug’s. I remember watching a great summer storm roll in and the scramble to cover the deck, the mics, the amps and the attendees tucking themselves under cover. There was a real sense of ‘the show goes on.’ The rain passed, and we were left with another one of those glorious summer afternoon shows.”
Getting into the loop can be tricky, as most house concerts are only advertised through e-mail lists or word of mouth. Still, interested music fans can hunt them down in various ways. Check out some of your favourite artists’ websites — they could have a link to upcoming house concerts, and will usually provide the host’s e-mail. It’s also worthwhile to ask around at your favourite folk club or festival — a volunteer or audience member might have a connection.