Sunday, June 30, 2002

Concerts Are Bringing the House Down
(Connecticut Weekly Desk)


By JEFFREY B. COHEN



© 2002 The New York Times Company

SITTING in his hosts' living room, Jimmy LaFave, a guitarist based in Austin, Tex., described his life as a singer-songwriter by quoting a musician friend: ''We sell dozens of records to discriminating listeners in small pockets of good taste.''

It is a modest job description, but for many folk musicians, it is accurate. And on the days when the clubs are quiet and the artists still need to eat, the trick is locating those listeners, finding those pockets and playing them.

That is where house concerts come in, like the one Mr. LaFave recently played in Haddam. An idea at least as old as traveling troubadours and coffee houses, the house concert is just that: a concert in someone's house.

Unlike club owners, the homeowners generally do not look to make a profit. Unlike clubgoers, guests at house concerts are more likely to spend $30 on two CD's rather than five drinks, and all of the money goes to the performer.

But all house concerts are not alike. Indeed, each of Connecticut's three continuously operating sites is as different as the homes in which they are presented: a 169-year-old church in Haddam, a brand-new barn in Lyme or an apartment living room in New Haven.

Still, although the sites may differ, the idea is the same: bringing music to the listeners and putting money in the mostly strumming hands of the artists.

''It's like the freedom train,'' said Tom Neff of Grassy Hill House Concerts in Lyme. ''It's the underground railroad of acoustic music.''

Mr. Neff held concerts in a small back room in his 18th-century farmstead beginning in 1997, but the room was smaller than his ambitions. So he now holds monthly concerts for up to 75 people in a newly constructed, acoustically engineered, technically souped-up barn.

But more important than sharing his new toy is sharing the music he loves, Mr. Neff said. He calls it ''folk presenting,'' an effort to ''grow the listening pie,'' and he does it both to bring music to the listeners and listeners to a music not known as a moneymaker.

John and Debi Friedlander bought their Haddam house, a one-time church, in 2001 with the intention of putting on concerts from the beginning. Their house-warming party was a concert in their ''living room,'' which is 26 feet wide and 33 feet long with a 21-foot-high ceiling and four gigantic antique windows that look out on the Connecticut River Valley.

Since then, most of the time, the former worship space has been their home; once in a while, it is home to the Church House Concerts.

''It's really community space, and it feels kind of odd when it's empty,'' Ms. Friedlander said. ''It's a private party that I couldn't afford to throw otherwise.''

Those who attend the parties are grateful.

''It's almost a replacement for what the 60's were,'' said Elyn Fox during Mr. LaFave's intermission at the Church House.

She, like most of the audience this night, fits into the older-than-30-something, good manners crowd and tired of the bar scene. ''Bars?'' she said. ''Been there. Done that.''

One of the Friedlanders' most frequent guests, and volunteer parking attendant, has come to every show because ''he said he feels like we've hand-selected the musicians like fine grapes, and he knows that if we choose them, he's going to like them,'' Ms. Friedlander said.

But all sites need not be as elaborate as those that Mr. Neff and the Friedlanders have created.

''When I think of house concerts, it's people, they have a big living room, they'll clean the furniture out, move some chairs in and have somebody stand up and start playing,'' said Meredith Tarr, who did just that in 1998 when her favorite musician was in the area looking for gigs.

Since then, Ms. Tarr and her boyfriend, Rob Woiccak, have had at least 15 shows in their 21-foot by 14-foot apartment living room in New Haven.

Their Live at the House O'Muzak House Concert Series is decidedly no frills. Snacks are chips and salsa, maybe some coffee or tea, but that is about it, Ms. Tarr said. And she pays for that herself. ''I figure, if I'm going to have people over, I'm going to buy snacks anyway,'' she said.

That pretty well describes her attitude toward the concerts: it's like having a 25 people over for a party with live entertainment.

''For them, it's the best party they've had recently,'' Trina Hamlin said of her house concert hosts. Ms. Hamlin, a guitarist, recently played a three-person show with Eric Schwartz and Zo Lewis at Grassy Hill. ''Everybody kind of wins,'' she said.

Especially the artists. House concerts are not as noisy as bars, smoking is typically forbidden, making singing easier on the voice. Plus, a house concert is a chance to connect with a smaller audience and often to make better money than on the club scene.

For instance, Mr. Schwartz said that he played for 49 paying people at a recent club gig and made $300; he played for 30 paying people at Grassy Hill and made $470.

The reality is that the ''underground railroad of acoustic music'' and its artists won't thrive without well-paying gigs like these. ''So, if you're rich and you have a big house, you could have folk musicians eating out of your hand,'' Mr. Schwartz said with a smile.

Just make sure the neighbors don't mind, Mr. Friedlander said. To address neighbors' concerns before they really need addressing, one must ''understand that your neighbors may not be as into it as you are, and be sensitive to that,'' he said.

Unlike at clubs, these house concert owners want to know who is coming to the show in advance. So they don't advertise other than on their own Web sites and strangers just can't walk up to the door and buy tickets.

Finally, to keep the concert as private as possible, the locations are not disclosed until the invited guests have been contacted by the show's host in advance.

The upside is that scheduling artists between club gigs isn't too hard.

''A Tuesday night or a Monday night is traditionally a horrible night to play,'' Ms. Hamlin said of the club scene. ''But a house concert is a guaranteed audience.''

And, again, it is guaranteed cash.

''I was thinking, this is so much work for him and his wife,'' Ms. Lewis said of Mr. Neff's Grassy Hill concert series. ''And he's giving us all the money. How supportive.''