Several of the bands I've interviewed in recent years have brought up house concerts as one of their means of income, but I'd never really been to one until recently. It was a wonderful experience, and I can see why they're becoming more common now.
About 20 or 30 people gathered on May 14 in my friend Shamim Allen's living room in Saranac Lake for a concert by the Honey Dewdrops, a husband-and-wife duo from Virginia. The air was warm, but open windows kept the house from getting muggy and also let in the sound of peepers from nearby Moody Pond. Against the frogs' acoustic backdrop, the Dewdrops - Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish - laid harmony singing, banjo and guitar lines that were close, comfortable and pretty well entrancing.
There were no microphones, speakers or monitors. The musicians stood in a corner with their instrument cases next to them as they played. All the rock-show trappings, the filters between the musicians and the audience, were unnecessary, so for simplicity's sake, they weren't there.
The Honey Dewdrops — Kagey Parrish, left, and Laura Wortman — perform May 14 in a living room in Saranac Lake.
(Photo — Shaun Ondak)
It helped that these new songs, written by the Dewdrops and recently recorded with the help of Saranac Lake couple Jeff Oehler and Sue Bibeau (aka Beehive Productions), proved worthy of our rapt attention, but it felt just as good when the Dewdrops spent the second set playing covers. They took turns picking songs out the blue, clearly without having discussed it beforehand.
The room sounded fantastic, acoustically, but as a friend pointed out, the Dewdrops' professionalism had just as much to do with it. They tempered their volume to the space, just as bluegrass band members modulate as they work around a single microphone.
While it isn't hard to see an intimate folk show in Saranac Lake - at BluSeed Studios, for example - the living-room setting took everything up a big notch. It brought out the best in the musicians; the performance itself was enhanced, not just the acoustics.
The national music scene has become so leveled over the last decade. Every time I interview a band that comes through here, they tell me the same thing: These days, there's pretty much no dangling carrot of "making it big": major record labels, amphitheater gigs and rock-star lifestyle. For the most part, that's a good thing. Musicians with enough talent, commitment, work ethic and positive attitude can still make a living, and totally on their own terms.
But they have to work harder and have to get used to, sometimes, playing for small crowds. That's where house concerts come in. Depending on the circumstances, it can be less stressful and more rewarding to perform in front of a couple dozen attentive people in a living room than a couple hundred distracted ones at a bar.
There's also predictability to consider. When a band plays at a bar or concert hall, it's hard to know how many people will show up. Advance promotion helps, but it's a small market up here. It's magical when a full house is boogying away into the night, but I've seen plenty of well-promoted shows with tepid turnouts. When these are the occasions I finally get to meet musicians I've interviewed over the phone, it can be awkward.
"I'm not sure where everyone is, but more folks might show up later," I find myself saying, with a weak smile.
A house concert is, by design, invite-only, so with a little RSVP action the host can have a good idea of who's coming. And it's all among friends, even though the host charges admission to pay for the band, drinks and food. It's easier to work out everyone's finances in advance, with fewer surprises.
For the Dewdrops, last month's show was even more intimate since they had, to a degree, become part of this circle of friends. They had stayed with Shamim their first time in Saranac Lake, in March 2010, toured the area with her for five days and met a bunch of folks. Then, after a return gig last fall, they hired Jeff and Sue to produce their new album, "Silver Lining."
A house concert, I discovered, does wonders for connecting performer and audience. In this case, it strengthened an existing bond.
It's a welcome, sensible addition to the evolving economics of music.