Playing for Couches, Not Crowds
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s all about the music, man.
“Yup, you’re here,” says a guy in a plaid shirt as we stroll down the residential street, bottles of wine in hand, unsure which house it is. He ushers my friend and me into an unassuming San Francisco home owned by Diana and Steve. We don’t know them. Nor do we know KC Turner, the person who invited us. Or, for that matter, the person we’re here to see, Matt the Electrician.
But it’s OK. This is a house concert and that’s what house concerts are all about: strangers gathering at a stranger’s home, not for a party per se, but for a performance. Typically one by a fairly talented, low-key acoustic type. You know, the sort of musician who couldn’t in a million years play Madison Square Garden — but can certainly pack a living room.
Or in this case a sunny, decent-sized backyard. On a Saturday afternoon in September, 50 or so folding chairs face the ”stage,” which consists of a mic and speaker set up on the grass. One couple sits on a low-hanging tree branch. Another shares what looks like last night’s leftovers in a Tupperware container. Everyone else — a mix of 20s to 40s on up — sits attentively, sipping beer from bottles and bourbon from flasks, chitchatting before the show starts. The opener, Brandon Zahursky, is surprisingly good, kind of like a blonder, fairer, undiscovered Ray LaMontagne, who still needs a little work on his lyrics.
The 21-year-old aspiring rock star says he got his start with open mic nights and half-filled houses around the country. The week before playing this three-bedroom on Balboa Street, he opened for Jewel at the Uptown Theater in Napa. That was fun and all, he says, but he admits his heart lies with house concerts. “It’s just so much more intimate. There’s this misconception that musicians want to play for the most people possible, but for me it’s about the quality of people, not the quantity. At a house concert, people are really there for the music. There’s a glamour in it.” (And this guy is only 21?)
House concerts aren’t new, of course — musicians and indie bands have been playing in front of couches for decades. No longer just Joan Baez-types but bands like Yeasayer and Callaghan, who’s been hopping across America’s living rooms since May. House shows have never been more popular than “now,” says Fran Snyder of concertsinyourhome.com, a nationwide site that connects musicians with hosts and has seen a 25 percent increase in interest from artists this year, as well as an uptick in the number of people signing up to host. “There are more talented artists than ever and fewer vehicles for major success (shrinking labels, shrinking radio playlists, shrinking audiences, etc.),” says Snyder. “The key for most artists today is how to string together chains of small and medium successes. House concerts are one of the best ways to do that.”
It’s about the quality of people, not the quantity. At a house concert, people are really there for the music. There’s a glamour in it.
As are downright addictive sites like Kitchen Sessions and Wilcox Sessions, which feature well-done videos from all sorts of musicians rocking out in the comfort of a home and that can be viewed around the world. For free.
At the break, the guy sitting behind us — who drove in for the show with his wife from two hours away — shakes a Ziploc bag of crackers and horseradish cheddar. “Want some?” We swap him for a plastic cup of Pinot. (So much sweeter than the usual elbowing scene at a bar.) Matt, indeed a former electrician from Austin, Texas, starts strumming and storytelling and singing his heart out, as two tween girls from the neighboring house peer down from their window. Matt the Electrician has been playing house concerts (as well as pubs, clubs, music halls) for years, crisscrossing the country at a crazy clip. But when he’s in SF he only does house KC Turner concerts. And it pays off. He takes home every penny of every $20 “suggested tip” ticket and often sells out of his merch — and he makes real connections with new fans. “I just bought six CDs!” says one woman who hadn’t heard of him before.
Contrary to popular opinion, house concerts aren’t just for singers who couldn’t book a “real gig.” KC Turner recently asked G. Love to play one of his San Francisco house concerts. “And he said yes!” KC emailed his listserv, and tickets sold out within the hour. Then there’s independent musician Chad Stokes, who has played everywhere from Colorado’s Red Rocks to Berkeley’s Greek Theater with his band, Dispatch. They once shut down Storrow Drive in Boston, drawing 120,000 fans from around the world and sold out three nights at NYC’s Madison Square Garden — in 23 minutes — in 2007. Touring solo through the fall as Chadwick Stokes, he could play (and has played) any mid-sized venue he wants, but he’s chosen to do a cross-country Living Room Tour instead. (Every one of the two dozen shows sold out, day-of-sale, at $50 a pop.) “This was my 14th time seeing Chadwick perform,” superfan Cara McGrath posted on his Facebook page, ”but this show was like no other.”
Likewise for the performer. “I love not knowing where I’m going to land,” says Stokes (who, disclosure, is the brother of a friend). He is working on his second solo CD after the success of Simmerkane II. “On this Living Room tour, I’m playing a lot of songs that aren’t ready to be played in a public venue, so it’s great to roll them out in a more intimate atmosphere, where there can be a discussion.” Plus, he adds, “Last week in Philly, I got to play a part in a marriage proposal.”
Enjoy a living room concert with Chadwick Stokes: