Friday, May 29, 2009

Arts feature: Entertainers warm to concerts held in people's homes

Singer-songwriter Rod MacDonald.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)



By Bill Meredith

Like most non-essentials, live music is suffering through an economic-imposed crisis. But as nightclubs close, a quieter live music scene is surging under the radar.

House concerts are by no means new, but they're offering performers --particularly acoustic singer/songwriters -- more additions and alternatives to their club and festival schedules than ever before.

"I do them all the time now, both in America and overseas," says Delray Beach-based vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Rod MacDonald. "They're very quiet, and usually unamplified. It's very natural. Everybody's listening, as opposed to a bar, where there's a built-in level of noise that makes it hard to catch musical subtleties."

MacDonald was one of the leading singer/songwriters of the 1980s Greenwich Village folk scene. He teaches songwriting courses in South Florida at Florida Atlantic University, and music workshops around the country, and recently released his 10th CD, After the War (Blue Flute). Most his house concerts are solo, and many occur in South Florida, although not during the hot summer months.

"There are about four house concert series in Broward County alone," MacDonald says, "but most of those are outdoors, so they don't do much in the summer. The biggest of those, the Shack in the Back series, is definitely quiet then." Run by another popular South Florida singer/songwriter, Ellen Bukstel, that Fort Lauderdale-based series is busiest from October through April.

But as Fran Snyder, creator of ConcertsInYourHome.com – an international house concert referral service -- points out, the seasonal nature of house concerts varies.

"In places like Montana, it's the exact opposite of South Florida," he says. "There's tons going on there in the summer."

Singer-songwriter Fran Snyder,
founder of Concerts in Your Home.


Snyder was a touring singer-songwriter in Pompano Beach before moving to Georgia in 2001, when his wife accepted a regional position within the Hill's Pet Nutrition corporation. Pam Snyder is often required to relocate, so the couple has since moved to Texas and Kansas.

Now based in Lawrence, Kan., Snyder started CIYH in 2006. An Internet search of "house concerts" yields several series, but Snyder's more comprehensive organization also ranks high. For a $48 annual fee, it connects 700 performers (including himself and MacDonald) to 400 different national house concert hosts.

"It's my experience that folks who really love to listen intently, who are moved by a song's lyrics, are some of the world's kindest, most caring people," says Susan Sweeney, who hosts CIYH shows in Wellington through her Equestrian Concerts series.

"These people are happy even before they arrive, knowing they are a patron of the arts, literally helping to support a musician. One can arrive alone, yet not feel alone, and usually one leaves having made new friends."

Some of those hosts are listed on the CIYH site; some are not, joining mainly to peruse artists. The Florida link lists 17 different venues, but only Southeastern Florida presenters Equestrian Concerts, The Outpost and The Hub in Miami, and Bournel House Concerts in Coral Springs.

"It's free for hosts to join, but some of them have been doing this for 10 years and don't need my help," Snyder says.

"Many presenters say they gets tons of submissions from artists without even being listed," MacDonald says.

Some of those artists play house concerts despite having rather high profiles. Guitarist Jennifer Baten has toured the world with both Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck; singer/songwriter Craig Bickhardt has written nine Top 10 country hits. But both also seek the intimacy of CIYH bookings.

"I think some of the best gigs in the country are house concerts," MacDonald says. "Most have potluck dinners before the concert, and the food's usually really good. And many are parts of seasonal series, so they develop regulars and it turns into a social event. You don't necessarily need to draw the crowd, but you meet new people.

"Plus, they're sometimes staged in places where there's no possibility of a club. I often play in really small towns that can't sustain a club. So house concerts allow those people to have live music without having to travel an hour to hear it, and it gives them a stronger sense of community."

MacDonald has upcoming house concerts June 6 in Sharon, Mass., and June 28 in Tampa.

"House concerts generally pay as well or better than club gigs," he says. "As an artist, you get all the money. The organizers don't tend to keep any of it, because they don't want to deal with the taxes. It's a win-win situation."

Snyder hosts concerts at his home in Kansas, and plays several house concerts annually.

"I hardly tour anymore unless house concerts are involved," he says. "That's how much I like them, and how much more productive they are than other shows."

Or as Snyder writes on the CIYH site: "We believe the value of music is best measured by memories -- not alcohol sales."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer in South Florida who has written extensively for Jazziz and Jazz Times magazines.

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