House concerts are providing DIY-inclined singer/songwriters, like Callaghan, a way to earn a living at their craft … and bringing music to fans in the purest, most intimate way
At 5:58 on a warm and sunny spring evening in North Quincy, Mass., Frank Sullivan is stirring a pot of homemade jambalaya on the kitchen stove with a smile on his face. "I love cooking," he says. "It's a gift - and a curse - from my father. He said you can never make enough food for a party."
Frank's wife, Maribeth Sayers, is taking a breather at the kitchen table after setting out an array of chips, dip and vegetables. Keenly mindful of the guests on their way, she and Frank have also stocked the adjoining enclosed porch with several coolers of beers, their longnecks poking tantalizingly through ice.
About 40 people are due to arrive, most friends and family, at "Chez Saysull," as those regular visitors dubbed it many get-togethers ago. ("We just call it home," Frank says.) But as promising the aroma of jambalaya, they’re coming for something else than good food and drink. A sign on the back door reveals the nature of this evening's festivities: "Performing Tonite: Callaghan. Cover: $20."
This isn't just a party for Frank and Maribeth. They're putting on a concert. The kitchen will double as a record store, with the window sill as a makeshift merch table. One of the house's three bedrooms does double duty as a green room, and the stage will be in the living room near the picture window. Later, when it's all over, the kitchen will become the post-show meet and greet area for those holding a VIP pass, which in this case will be everyone.
House concerts aren't new. In 2001, Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens logged 70 shows (and more than 65,000 miles) in his five-month "Living Room Tour." Emerging bands like Brooklyn septet Ava Luna supplement club dates with shows in quasi-professional DIY performance spaces and private homes, veteran artists like Pere Ubu's David Thomas offer fans the chance to book living room shows and current acts like Atlantic's Scars on 45 perform house dates, as well.
They've also become an increasingly common way for artists, mostly singer/songwriters, to carve out a viable living. Tonight, far from the lights and lasers of arenas that fit upwards of 20,000, Callaghan is singing for approximately 40 people in a living room. And, she, Frank and Maribeth are helping reshape the business of touring, if not music consumption entirely.
Georgina Callaghan's journey to a picturesque seaside neighborhood began with an email to Shawn Mullins.
"I really thought, 'I have absolutely nothing to lose from trying to get in touch with him'," she says of Mullins, who broke through to the Billboard Hot 100's top 10 in 1998 with the ballad "Lullabye." "He had a profile on MySpace, but I really didn't know whether he even looked at his messages."
She reached out to Mullins in 2009 with little expectation of hearing back. "I thought, he's never gonna see this," says Callaghan (who omits her first name professionally). "But, I'm just sitting here in London and there's no one else I want to produce my album, so, why not?
"A couple weeks later when I got an e-mail back from him, I just completely fell off my chair. I couldn't believe that he'd seen the email … and loved my songs."
The two struck up an online correspondence, and Callaghan decided to move to Atlanta to work with Mullins on her debut, "Life in Full Colour," a blend of gentle piano- and acoustic guitar-driven folk which she self-released last year.
But when you're an independent artist just beginning to grow an audience, creativity in your business acumen is as key as in your artistry. The idea of playing house concerts set in, and Frank and Maribeth's home is only the start. Callaghan billed her month-long spring tour "Callaghan Across America," which encompassed 25 house concerts and wrapped on June 2 in Berkeley, Calif.
"11,000 miles in a 1996 Toyota 4Runner," is how her husband and manager, and fellow U.K. transplant, Steve Massey, laughingly describes their undertaking about two hours before the trek's first gig. (Despite the impressive spread back at the house, the couple is discussing the tour over fish and chips at nearby Burke's Seafood. Once Sullivan had mentioned the restaurant, the couple couldn't resist a taste of native comfort food.)
Why embark on such a lengthy journey, devoid of handlers to take care of numerous details (such as, say, a year's worth of driving compressed into a month)?
"There are a lot of places where I know I have fans, but I haven't managed to get to yet to do a show, like Colorado or the West Coast. Just logistically, it's expensive," Callaghan explains.
"So, I thought, house concerts are a great way to put all these places together, in a route that goes coast-to-coast, and incorporate all these places where I haven't played a public show before, but where I've got a fanbase," she says. "When I put it out there on Twitter, Facebook and my email list, so many people responded, 'I definitely want to come to your house shows.' "
"I've been amazed, actually, at how many people have responded," Callaghan marvels, especially at the fact that house concert hosts traditionally offer artists free room-and-board (plus culinary care packages upon their departures), making ever-costly gas one of the only major expenses of such a tour. "Some of them have never been to a house show, never mind hosted one."
Two of those newcomers to the house concert model? Frank and Maribeth. The pair first became fans of Callaghan on this year's Cayamo Cruise, the floating folk festival booked by Sixthman, the Atlanta-based music cruise company. Such genre staples as Mullins, Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby and John Prine, as well as rising acts like Callaghan and recent Billboard Bubbling Under spotlight artist Liz Longley, have sailed the Cayamo's Caribbean course, performing aboard the Norwegian Pearl. "Callaghan said she was going to do a house tour across America, and we signed up," Frank says.
Not expecting to hear back, the couple was pleasantly surprised when Callaghan responded and their house instantly became the first venue on her tour. "There was a lot cleaning … a lot of painting. We totally ripped apart our house," Frank says.
"But, it needed cleaning anyway, so it gave us an excuse," he reasons.
The couple's joy of hosting a show in its home is evident. Having worked at HMV Records, Frank has amassed a collection of 29,000 song downloads. The CDs on the shelves in the hallway are even arranged alphabetically, with dividers reading "Blues" and "Jazz" separating sounds. Music helped define the pair's relationship from the start. "I went to a party where he had made the playlist," Maribeth remembers. "I really liked the music." "I was into this band, Human Sexual Response," Frank seamlessly continues. "When I found that she was the only other person I knew who had an album of theirs, it was like, 'Wow … we must be meant for each other.' "
Along with a love for music, as well as having "cool neighbors," who don't mind offering their driveway for overflow of guests, perhaps the most vital ingredient for hosting a house concert? "You have to have a lot of friends," Frank says.