t the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Falls Church, I park and make my way up the winding brick path to the front door of a house I've never been to.
Through the window I see a crowd of people, wine glasses in hand, and I don't even knock before turning the doorknob and walking in. I'm a stranger but don't feel at all out of place among these folks, who ignore me as I walk among them. I wander over to a dining room table filled with food -- cheese, chips, dip, lasagna, chili -- and load up a plate. I pour some excellent merlot (Lindemans Bin 40, not cheap) into a plastic cup and make my way down a short flight of stairs. I join a few dozen people in a rec room lit by two standing halogen lamps and plop myself onto a folding chair, one of about 50 aligned in rows.
I smile to the couple next to me, and when they both smile back I ask, "Do you go to many house concerts?"
House concerts are exactly what those two words say -- concerts that people hold in their houses -- and they've become something of a nationwide phenomenon during the past 10 years. While there has always been live music in homes -- classical drawing room salons, rural front-porch hoedowns, Harlem rent parties, rock bands in basements -- the current style of house party has flourished because of a confluence of circumstances, the primary one being the graying of the baby boomers.
These are people who grew up with music as a central part of their lives, who used to hit the club scene regularly, who still buy new music and who have succeeded enough in their careers to own a decent-size home.
But these are people whom the machinery of pop culture routinely ignores. They're too old for Britney, they don't care about Celine Dion, they prefer their music mostly acoustic, they don't like smoky clubs where it's hard to find a seat or a parking space, and they're proactive enough to search for an alternative.
The second key factor in the rise of house concerts has been the Internet, where people can find musical acts that might be up for playing a house concert, where they can find like-minded folks to become potential audiences, where they can promote shows and, in some instances, where the initial inspiration for a house concert can be found.
Rob Litowitz is an intellectual property lawyer in Washington who's been hosting nationally known musicians in his living room for more than four years -- a performance series he's dubbed "Live at Roxy's" (Roxy is the family dog). "It was all made possible by the wonders of the Internet," he says. "I'm a big music fan and came across something on a music discussion board talking about a 'house concert' in California, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I put 'house concert' into a search engine and found this amazing world where people around the country were having concerts in their homes, which was a totally foreign concept to me at the time."
One day later, Litowitz heard an interview with singer Ana Egge on his car radio, "and I put two and two together," he says. "I'd never heard of her before, but she was good, and I used to book acts into the coffeehouse at college, so I thought, 'I'll book a show, and it will happen to be at my house.' " He wrote a letter to Egge's manager, and after a few e-mails and phone calls, there she was in Litowitz's living room in Bethesda, playing in front of 70 people.
"It was a Thursday night, and she was on tour and was in between someplace and someplace, and it made sense to do it," Litowitz says. He invited his friends and friends of friends he thought would enjoy Egge, asked for $15 at the door, put out some wine and cheese and played the happy host. "She made a fortune," he says proudly. "And we had a great concert."
There are about a dozen people in the Washington area who regularly present house concerts, and the home I've strolled into without knocking belongs to Beth Auerbach and Norman Stewart. They host mostly local and regional folk performers, bringing them in every three months or so. They call their concert series the "Sleepy Hollow Folk Club." The night I'm there, those 50 folding chairs are arranged to face Charlottesville songwriter/guitarist Terri Allard, joined by her frequent musical sidekick, Gary Green, on harmonica.
The duo plays for about 40 minutes, then takes a break. Allard walks up to the kitchen ready to do commerce. With a warm smile on her face and a kind word for every fan, she sells disc after disc, inscribing them all, often with something personal learned while conversing with the buyer. They all sign her e-mail list for future gig announcements and walk away happy, pouring themselves another beer, soda or glass of wine before the second set begins.
They've each paid $12 to attend the concert, money that sits in an upside-down black felt top hat near the door. All of it goes to the performers, and combined with the money from CD sales, Allard and Green drive away at the end of the night with more than $1,000, a figure much higher than most folk clubs or coffeehouses could guarantee them.
"I have done a lot of house concerts the past few years," Allard says, "and it's so wonderful for a musician. They're sort of a break from the normal touring thing -- you don't have to worry about sound systems, how many people have paid at the door, what the beer sales are. To some extent it takes the business and the politics out of the music. It's still business, I guess, but you're just hanging out in someone's house, and the people who host them really, really love musicians, and they really just want to help out."
Allard admits to being skeptical when first presented with an offer to play at someone's house. "I generally love playing with a sound system and thought it would sound bad without one, and I didn't know how comfortable I'd feel in someone's living room." Then after performing a few, she felt liberated. "There's no microphone to hide behind, and it's amazing what happens when it's not there. You sing to the audience, not to the microphone. It's a very different experience than say, playing at Wolf Trap or some other large concert hall."
It's that intimacy that gives house concerts their power, something made very clear when Allard tells a sad (but hopeful) story about her sick brother and asks the audience to sing along to a song she wrote for him. All those sympathetic voices on the chorus is something I've rarely heard in a club.
Michelle Swan, a local folk singer who has performed at half a dozen house concerts and also books performers into a friend's house (the "House Concerts at the View"), says intimacy is a house concert's greatest reward. "What I loved most about it when I started playing house concerts was that there wasn't the barrier of the stage, the lights, the sound equipment you normally find between a performer and the audience," she says. "There's always some sort of invisible wall in a real venue, where you don't get to interact with people, and the audience feels nervous about coming up to talk to you, but at house concerts you're really part of the crowd. By the time you go on, you've already talked with a lot of the people, gotten to know them, their names, things about them."
Swan says she first heard about house concerts a few years ago, attending and then performing at the home of Scott and Paula Moore. The Rockville couple began their "Moore Music (In the House)" concert series after Scott Moore researched house concerts for a story printed in Weekend six years ago.
Now an editor for The Post's KidsPost page, Moore says that once he was exposed to house concerts he was hooked. "I fell in love with them, and we went to bunches of shows before we hosted our own," he says. "We were content with going to shows, especially at the Panzers [Steve and Sherry Panzer in Columbia]. But there were people we'd see at their house who we wanted to see again, and there were people that we liked but who they didn't know about, so we thought, 'If we're going to see these people, we're going to have to host them ourselves.' "
Moore has now become one of the gurus of the local house music scene, helping others organize and book shows, giving advice, holding "how-to" meetings, and working with the internationally known Washington-based Folk Alliance on some of the larger issues facing house concerts and their presenters.
One of the big questions facing presenters is whether house concerts are legal in a given jurisdiction, a question that hinges mainly on the cover charge. Moore says it's important that the door charge -- usually between $5 and $20 -- be a "suggested donation" rather than a formal cover charge. "I know some hosts that don't even touch the money," Moore says. "Guests put it in a box or basket or whatever, and the performer takes it himself, so the hosts can say they had nothing to do with it." He likens house concerts to Tupperware parties, a chance for people to be exposed to a product, in this case live music, to see if they want to take some of that product (CDs) home with them. He stresses that presenters have to be diplomatic with neighbors about noise and parking.
Another issue facing hosts is that of royalty payments to (primarily) ASCAP and BMI, the two largest collection and distribution agents for songwriting royalties. "I know some house concerts have been approached by those organizations about paying some fixed royalty amount to them," Moore says, "but I haven't heard of any of them actually paying. The Folk Alliance has been negotiating with ASCAP and BMI for two or three years on behalf of house concerts and smaller venues like coffeehouses to see if there's a fair way to pay royalties and to make sure they go to the performers. But right now, the way the payment structures are set up; that's not going to happen, so house concerts have a problem with that, since we're set up exactly for the purpose of directly helping the artist."
But the biggest concern of every presenter is security. If you're inviting 50 people into your house on a regular basis, isn't that asking for trouble? "I figure it's a sort of self-selection process," Litowitz says. "If somebody is going to take the trouble to come to your house to hear an artist like Terri Hendrix or Michelle Malone, you're going to be coming because of the music. You make the leap of faith that fans of that kind of music are going to be trustworthy."
Still, presenters don't put their addresses on their Web sites -- the primary advertising tool for house concerts -- and ask that scheduled performers don't put concert addresses on their sites either. Instead, people interested in attending have to e-mail the presenters and reserve a seat, a process that usually involves a back and forth of e-mails that allows presenters to take the measure of the potential attendee before divulging the location.
Swan says that to be on the safe side, she recently pulled from her Web site a photo of Lynn Vermillera, the host of the "Concerts at the View" series she books. "It was a beautiful picture of Lynn with her son, but she asked me to take it down, because you just never know. Maybe someone would come out just because they saw her picture."
The worst thing anyone I talked to about house concerts could remember happening was a drunk having to be thrown out, but everyone acknowledges that bad things could happen. "I hate to dwell on that part," Moore says. "But if you're paranoid about it, just don't invite 50 people into your house."
For some artists, the trouble can come from the presenters themselves. As the Kennedys, Pete and Maura Kennedy are one of Washington's best-known pop music exports and have played dozens of house concerts across the country. "For some hosts, it's a social event, and they want you to stay up late with them after the show, keeping a jam session going," Maura says. "They don't understand how tired you get on tour, how you have to get to bed and recharge." While many house concert hosts offer a room to touring acts, Pete Kennedy says the smartest thing is to book a hotel room. "You make clear that the performance ends at a certain time, then you head to the hotel," he says. "We've definitely had a couple of hellish experiences staying with promoters, but nothing we couldn't handle."
Australian guitarist Jeff Lang says he ended his house concert career after just one performance. "This guy would come to every gig I played, then he called my manager and said he wanted to have me play at his place," Lang says. "I said okay and did it, and after I was finished I packed up to leave, not understanding there was this implicit thing that I should stay there and have a barbecue with him or something. I left and he hasn't been to a gig since. It was like, 'Bugger you if you're not going to be my mate. I booked you to be my friend, and now you don't want to be my mate, well fine.' It made me very wary of those type of shows."
For Pete Kennedy, however, the benefits far outweigh any potential downside, and the Kennedys continue to make house concerts a part of any tour. "They're complementary to club dates, and in some ways more important," Pete says. "Because the people that come to house concerts are the most passionate, they're the tastemakers in a way. There may be only 25 or 50 people there, but that's all you need if they buy the records and play them for all their friends and tell them to see this particular band the next time they're in town. That's exactly what you hope for."
He points out that these events are important for audiences, too. "They're an essential part of the experience," he says. "These audiences want to interact with each other and reinforce the things they believe in. They find people with similar tastes and get to find out more about the music by talking to each other. In that way they're a lot like punk rock audiences. They know they're in an alternative world to the mainstream, and they realize their presence is as important as the music."
Funny Pete should mention the punk scene, because the other musical universe that has made live shows at private residences a mainstay of performance calendars is the punk rock world. For more than two decades Washington area punks have embraced a do-it-yourself ethic that has always included shows in alternative spaces, and one of the most popular of those has been people's homes.
In this area there are at least a half-dozen houses that are the site of punk rock shows on a regular basis, usually about once a month. These differ from the singer/songwriter house concerts in that they're all in group houses, all rental properties, and they're generally not the most well-kept of domiciles.
"It's called the Dirt Farm for a reason," says Josh Fisk about his home in Adelphi, where he books punk, metal, thrash and other raucous bands several nights a month. "The main reason I started doing it after I moved here about a year ago from Louisiana, is that in New Orleans it seemed there were 10 times as many shows I wanted to see than what I found in D.C.," Fisk says. "That surprised me, since this was such a hardcore and punk capital. I didn't find much DIY stuff going on, and I'd say the clubs in D.C. are definitely not doing a good job, as far as this kind of music is concerned."
Fisk says the police have come by a few times, but he's never been shut down. "We've done some soundproofing, since it gets kind of loud, but not that loud. And as long as we end everything by 9 p.m. we're fine, that's the law. After that, they could get us on noise complaints."
Chris Richards of local punk favorites Q and Not U (and a part-time Washington Post copy aide) hosted some shows at the Kansas House (on Kansas Street in Arlington) when he lived in that group house and says house shows (punks don't call them house concerts) were essential to the band's growth. "When we were starting out, we used to play them all the time in D.C.," Richards says, "and you really get a lot out of those shows. There's no barrier between the band and the audience. You get a more intimate show, maybe a better one than at a club. Definitely a more memorable show."
He says he would ask people to donate money, all of which (like at house concerts) would go to the bands. "That money is especially important if the bands are on tour," Richards says. "We just want to try to get them to the next town with food and gas money."
One of Richards's housemates at the Kansas House, Bob Massey (also a part-time Washington Post copy aide), says that he had to make some rules when things started getting out of hand. "Sure, we absolutely worried about having a hundred people come in and trashing the place," he says. "When I was there we did 20 to 30 shows, and they started out pretty free-form, then we had to institute some guidelines: no smoking in the house, we cleared out the furniture, we made sure people didn't drink in the yard, we took some soundproofing steps, we tried to be vigilant about underage drinking."
Jacob Long plays bass and percussion with the local punk/noise band Black Eyes and says that half the shows on the band's most recent two-week tour were house shows. "It's an environment that we as a band really like," Long says. "We've been together just over a year, and it's easier to play house shows than to get gigs at clubs; but beyond that, it's a really fun environment to play in." Even though Black Eyes has made it to the top of the local club scene, playing the Black Cat with regularity, Long says, "We'll still try to play houses as much as possible."
It's a thought echoed by New York-based rocker Richard X. Heyman, a performer in his early forties who has discovered house concerts only in the past year and has embraced them. "I don't see why we can't mix it up, some clubs, some house concerts," Heyman says. "We've been going out on these mini-tours, a week long, and doing a club date one night, then doing a house concert the next afternoon."
If the homeowners are up for it, Heyman will bring the whole band in and rock out. "We did one out on Long Island, the whole thing was catered, I brought my p.a. system, and we did the show like we were doing a club concert, and in a way it was the best of both worlds. We had a great environment for the show with an attentive audience, and no one was telling us to turn it down just because we happened to be in someone's house."
Few house concert presenters are willing to book a full rock band, so Heyman and his wife, Nancy (his bass player), often perform as a duo. "It's great to get out of the clubs sometimes," he says. "They've got a built-in culture clash going on. Basically they're in the business of selling liquor, while you're trying to do something creative and artistic, supposedly, and it's a strange dichotomy. They've always been a difficult environment to work in, while house concerts are geared totally toward one thing, your performance, and that's kind of nice, to say the least."
Nice for the artist, nice for the audience, nice for the host. They all have a part in (as the expression says) keeping it real. They're involved in something that is real, based on actual human interaction, a rare quality in our pop culture landscape littered with digital downloads and lip-synched live "performances." Because of that, house concerts and their punk cousins, house shows, will never disappear. The intimacy they offer fulfills a need that club shows can seldom, if ever, fill.
"The focus is on the music," says Eric Sorensen, a defense contractor who has hosted a few performers, including Heyman, in his Falls Church home, "and because of that I can only imagine the number of house concerts -- in every genre -- growing. People want to see the creative process up close, and by providing this kind of coffeehouse atmosphere in our home, we offer them a place to see that, in a setting that no club could replicate."
The Folklore Society of Greater Washington has been hosting house concerts in members' homes since the mid-'60s and you can reach them at 301-776-4314 or www.fsgw.org. The Washington-based World Folk Music Association has links to area house concert presenters at www.wfma.net/DCvenues.htm or you can reach them at 800-779-2226. There's a nationwide resource at www.houseconcerts.com which includes listings of Washington, Virginia and Maryland house concerts.
You generally can reach presenters only via the Internet, as most concert hosts don't give out their addresses or phone numbers until you've made contact via e-mail. Here are some links to local house concert series:
www.michelleswan.com (click on "The View" button)
Also, an organization called the Mid-Atlantic Coalition of Folk Music Presenters is re-forming soon, and promises to be a keeper of much house concert information, so keep searching the Web for information on them.
On the punk rock side, houses that hold rock shows come and go, but you can find listings of current house shows in the area at www.pheer.com and www.exoticfever.com. Look for listings for the Kansas House, the Dirt Farm, the Disarm House, the Hideaway House, Genatalia's House and the Tree Swing House.