Sunday, July 8, 2001

AN INTIMATE NIGHT OF FOLK MUSIC AT HOME


By Roger Catlin
Courant Staff Writer
© 2001 The Hartford Courant Co.

House concerts -- which began when modest folk fans invited grateful performers into their living rooms to perform before their friends -- are growing up.

Where once the artists strained to fit in private homes amid a few dozen audience members in folding chairs, now there are bigger spaces going up for these concerts. Bigger names are appearing at the concerts, which have filled a niche for gig-hungry artists between bigger city-club dates. And slowly, house concerts are being promoted outside the word-of-mouth among friends to the greater world. Two folk venues in Connecticut have grown out of this house concert tradition.

In Lyme, the 4-year-old Grassy Hill concert series took a leap when it moved from a 30-seat farmhouse room to a 75-seat-capacity performance barn.

Tom Neff, who works in New York at a financial services firm, threw his first house concert on Grassy Hill in February 1997 with New England folk fixture Bob Franke.

Since then, he's presented Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky and dozens of other folk musicians.

Though he says the home concerts are as old as the folk revival in America, the current wave rose with the Internet.

"It's too expensive and time-consuming to do postcards and phone calls," he says. The reach of the Net also means that folk fans are happy to come from 50 miles away for the Sunday afternoon concerts.

The new barn, a culmination of two years' planning, strives to maintain the intimacy and rustic nature of the barn while using modern acoustics.

With its increased capacity, "My challenge is boosting the attendance to that level without turning it into Waterford Speedbowl," Neff says.

Things still work in the house-concert manner: With a minimum of publicity, performers are invited to play at the homes of fans, who gather their friends and have them pay a suggested donation about $10 a head, which goes directly to the performer.

For music fans, it's a unique, friendly and intimate night of music. For such performers as folk musicians, who often struggle to find the right commercial places to play, it's a relief from smoky bars where their music is often background.

Audiences are interested and enthusiastic, and as welcoming as if they were, well, at their own home. Plus, with many paying more than the suggested donation and often picking up a CD for sale, it's not a bad night for the artist, either.

At Grassy Hill, the finished barn represents two years of planning. It opened last month with a shakedown show with Sloan Wainwright and Linda Sharar.

Louise Taylor performed two weeks ago with New Haven artist Robert Messore. Jeff Lang, described as "Australia's pint-sized Richard Thompson," appears July 22 with Amy Fairchild. The summer season closes Aug. 19 with Jennifer Kimball, formerly of the Story, and Josh Ritter of Rhode Island.

Because the barn is all-weather, the concerts continue in the fall with Maggie & Suzzy Roche Nov. 10 and Maggie's son, Felix McTeague, opening.

A lot of the more established house concert series nationally are trying to accommodate more people, Lang says. "What's tended to happen is that people start in their living room and when it takes off, they're tempted to move out into the garage, or the guy's warehouse across the road. In New Jersey and Massachusetts, there are concert series that draw hundreds of people."

When do house concerts become commercial concerns? It varies from state to state, Neff says. But in Connecticut, he figures everyone who comes to his shows is "invited" through the Internet and any donation is only suggested. "So it's not a lot different than the guy up the hill who invites 95 people to a graduation party and the music blares all night."

The difference with house concerts is that folk music is quiet enough not to draw the ire of neighbors. "It's not like you're putting on a rock show," Neff says.

And in fact, he says, one of the greatest joys is introducing the music to people outside the usual folk circles -- neighbors, people from the grocery store -- who would normally not be exposed to such music.

House concerts are established enough to be listed at master sites like www.musi-Cal.com or www.houseconcerts.com, which also offers a 34-page booklet for sale to those who would like to start hosting their own house concerts.

The folk artist Michael Cooney of Maine compiled his own list of tips for house-concert presenters. ("Don't let irresponsible performers take advantage of your hospitality, good nature or timidity," he advises.)

The new Church House Concert series in Haddam grew out of a couple's love for music and for sharing their home in a 168-year-old church that was converted to a residence.

Unlike other house concerts, where guests have to fit folding chairs into an already-crowded living room, their concert space is 26-by-33 feet with a 20-foot ceiling and four antique glass windows.

The Church House Concert series begins next Sunday with a show by Cosy Sheridan with T.R. Ritchie.

"House concerts are very different animals than shows at music halls or bars or coffeehouses," John and Debi Fried say on their website. The events are more "like visiting friends who happen to have musicians or a band in the house, except that the music isn't in the background, it's the focus of the party."

Still, they give some warnings: "You will not feel comfortable if you don't enjoy listening attentively to live music. If you prefer to chat during performances, please do that elsewhere."

Guests also are asked not to bring children, pets, cameras or other recording devices or perfumes ("Debi is allergic," they explain). But guests are also asked to please bring: beverages to share ("no red wines, please -- they stain!"), folding chairs and "clean socks or slippers, so you can leave your shoes at the door."

Also important, they say, is "a positive, patient attitude. Remember, this isn't a public venue, it's our home. We're not making our living doing this. We're doing it for fun. With your help, it'll stay fun for all of us."

The concert by Sheridan and Ritchie is described as their housewarming concert. Beyond that, they say, "our schedule is a little hazy." However they have a wish list that includes Peter Mulvey, Karen Savoca, Pierce Pettis and Lyle Lovett -- "OK, we know this one is a long shot, but if Lyle is willing we certainly are."

For information on Grassy Hill concerts, call 860-434-8208 or e-mail info@grassyhill.org. For information on Church House Concerts, go to churchhouseconcerts.org