House Bands

At-home concerts offer alternatives to concert halls and clubs while giving musicians a cozy place to perform.

May 16, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

It is a musical moment that could only happen at home; in this instance, a cozy Northeast Baltimore bungalow. Adults and children sprawl on pillows and chairs and a dog futilely scratches the wrong side of a basement door. A spotlight, rigged to the kitchen doorway, shines on singer/songwriter Mary Byrd Brown, while she wraps listeners around her strumming fingers.

Soon, three little girls cluster at her stockinged feet, dancing up a storm. One of them is 3-year-old, pink-tutu-clad Kateri Pelton, daughter of Carl and Jennifer, and inspiration for the festivities at their home this night. "She's why we started holding house concerts," Jennifer says. (This is their first since the birth of twin boys last summer.) The Peltons wanted their daughter to be surrounded by music as she grew up.

Ardent acoustic and folk music fans, the couple attends festivals around the country. With a friend, they nurture a Web site, folk music.org, a clearinghouse for artists, fans and presenters, through which they seek to "revolutionize the way people think about, experience, and relate to music."

About two and a half years ago, the Peltons also started to hold house concerts, becoming part of a snowballing national movement. With a firm push from the Internet, folk devotees are returning to the "parlor" model of musical communion, one associated more commonly with the 19th century than the 21st.

In his handbook, "Producing House Concerts," one Texas presenter, Glen Duckett, practically describes his and wife Cheryl's earliest exposure to the phenomenon in born-again terms: "The first concert did not leave our minds for weeks and then I realized it was because I felt compelled to host concerts myself. We were so moved by the fact that 75 people had come into a home to sit quietly and listen intently to every word sung and every note played."

Scores of troubadours, from obscure to well-known, now welcome the opportunity to perform at house concerts, where listening to live music in a small-scale setting is a treasured pastime for homeowners and guests. "It's intimate, unplugged, you get to know people, you're well-fed and have a place to sleep," Brown says during intermission at the Pelton's, while guests nibble on dessert. "It's another safe house for the folk underground."

At her first house concerts, Brown, a private person, dreaded mingling in between sets, as is expected. Gradually, her fear converted "into an awkward kind of excitement." Networking is what you do at such events, she realized. That is also how you expand your mailing list. And as a mailing list grows, so does your fan base.

It's clear as Brown performs that she has learned to loosen up on the job.

For Brown and partner Andrew McKnight, performing at the Peltons' this night as well, house concerts are a lucrative filler between club gigs. Usually, guests are asked for a donation, from $5 to $15, and all proceeds go to the musicians. CD sales supplement house concert earnings. It is also customary to provide a bed and board to musicians, saving them hotel expenses. Even a small audience can yield gas money for a long road trip. On a recent swing through New England, Brown and McKnight stuck exclusively to house concerts.

Rod Smith, a Baltimore musician who has held numerous house concerts with established groups such as the Amy Fradon Band and the trio Acousticity, knows some artists who only perform in homes, although most "do a mix of regular and house concerts."

A house concert, Smith says, is also the ideal locale for those musicians not quite ready to perform in a commercial spot or who couldn't draw 100 listeners to a show.

Some agents and promoters view house concerts as competing with more standard venues, but Smith believes they appeal to different audiences and can only enhance attendance for everyone.

Sherry and Steve Panzer hold 12 to 14 house concerts a year in their Columbia home, where an open floor plan allows optimal listening and viewing conditions. "We've met so many interesting people, we've had `small world' stories, people have met here and got married," Sherry Panzer says. The folk music realm "is such an amazing community to us. Total strangers can just walk into your house and you have this instant sense of community with them because of the music."

Its own culture

As house concerts have grown in number, they've spawned a unique culture accompanied by its own etiquette, guidelines and parlance. Yet, no two house concert venues are alike. Brown and McKnight speak of performing in a sprawling basement space equipped with a full sound system. Other stages are unplugged and decidedly more humble.

One home may seat 100 guests; another no more than 20. There are concerts that end promptly and others that segue into song circles lasting long into the night. Potlucks, light refreshments, even wine tastings, are often part of the program. "Food and music are the best facilitators of community," Baltimore house concert presenter Margie Roswell says.

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