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.
Some concert hosts run a tight ship, imposing a reserved seating system and a no-kids policy. The Peltons' "family friendly" events accommodate squirming children, crying babies and dogs that need to be let out.
House concert series are identified by names both whimsical and prosaic: The Peltonian Embassy, (Baltimore), Flowers in the Desert (Texas) the Acoustic Cafe (Alabama), the Endangered Folk Singer Series (Wisconsin).
The demand for willing house concert hosts is great, and neighbors, friends and relatives of presenters are often persuaded to hold their own. That is how Roswell came to start her concert series at her Oakenshawe home. Always, before a show, anxiety strikes. Roswell wants enough people to attend so that it's "worth the performer's while," but there is also the opposite concern that too many people will arrive and she won't be able to seat them all. That's why Roswell, like many other presenters, insists on RSVPs to her concerts.
Inevitably, it's worth the angst. A musician and composer in her own right who makes her living as a spatial analyst, Roswell loves the intimacy of a home concert setting. And she has her own, "only at home" anecdotes to tell, such as the time, on a stifling summer evening, when musician Eric Schwartz flung ice cubes from her freezer at his appreciative audience.
Roswell says that house concerts also provide a safe space for hearing edgier material, such as Schwartz's work from his CD, "Songs My Mother Hates."
Besieged by requests
As they build a reputation, house concert presenters are inundated with requests from musicians to perform in their homes. Sherry Panzer gets "cold e-mails and phone calls all the time." She and her husband, though, "don't book anybody we haven't seen live." They and other presenters spot prospects for their series at music festivals and showcases presented by the Silver Spring-based North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance.
Home owners also screen potential guests who are strangers through their phone calls and e-mail. Problems with unruly visitors don't seem to happen in any significant way.
Legally, house concerts are hard to define. In his "how-to" booklet, Duckett advises keeping a low profile, but being mindful of local fire and zoning regulations and reviewing homeowners' insurance policies. When he started his series, he writes: "I convinced myself that what we were doing was no different than a Tupperware party except that we have a lot more fun."
At a Mount Washington house concert in early April, Californian Dave Nachmanoff sings "A Cautionary Tale," about an irresistible stray dog. Babies are passed around, a child tries to disrobe, yet another dog saunters across the room. One guest knits.
Anyone accustomed to hearing live music from a safe distance may not appreciate the intimacy and the casual ambiance. And any musician with less confidence might be irritated with the distractions.
The "anything could happen" quality of this performance is, in fact, a little unsettling. But it beats a Tupperware party any day.
Four upcoming house concerts in Baltimore and elsewhere offer a sampler of domestic musical experiences.
This Saturday, Richard Dahl, Cletus Kennelly and Lea perform at the House-in-the-Woods house concerts series near Frederick. Call 301-607-4048 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also Saturday, roots rocker Mark Erelli and Leigh Hilger perform at the Moore Music house concert series in Rockville. Call 301-309-0983 or e-mail: email@example.com.
On Sunday, folk/rock trio Sons of the Never Wrong perform at a Baltimore house concert. Call 410-542-7372 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Day of concert, call 410-534-2867.
On May 26, singer/songwriters Lynn Miles and Terry Gonda perform at the Panzer House Concerts series in Columbia. Call 410-531-9233 or e-mail: email@example.com.
Need more information? The Internet abounds with Web sites and links for house concert series around the country.