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.
House concerts aren't always entirely coordinated between artist and host. Fran Snyder founded the website Concertsinyourhome.com in 2006 under the premise that living rooms are made for live music.
"I'm a singer/songwriter and I've played everything from colleges to clubs," Snyder says. "I'm more of a rock artist, but I'd heard about house concerts from my folky friends. I'd never played one, but I was on the road in D.C. and had a gap in my schedule. I called one of my friends, put one together and just had an incredible evening. So many people showed up that I had to do two shows, one at 9 and one at 11."
After playing a couple such shows, Snyder quickly understood the appeal of playing in people's homes. "I went online to find out more about house concerts and discovered that there wasn't a good resource. I decided I was the guy to step up and do it."
Seven years later, Concertsinyourhome.com is a network of approximately 300 artists, each of whom has to pass an audition, and 500-600 active hosts. Hosts pay no fee to join and can tap into the site's rich reservoir of tips. "We want hosts to understand that this is not background music," Snyder says. "It's not a band playing in the corner while people are munching in the kitchen. We're teaching people how to listen to music again. You go to a club and there's always a social aspect. There's a chatty table at the front. It dilutes the connection between the artist and the people that are there."
Artists, meanwhile, pay a one-time membership to Concertsinyourhome.com, which New England-based singer/songwriter and site member Sarah Blacker says she "typically make[s] back in one show."
"House concerts are not for the smoke-and-mirrors kind of musician," she says. "They're unpredictable and force you to interact. But, you can forge genuine connections with new fans. They're eager to hear the stories behind your songs and they really get to know you.
"And, for all of their openness and challenges, house concerts' up-close aspect means that nearly everyone buys one, if not all, of your CDs," Blacker adds, sharing that she's grossed more than $700 in donations (i.e., ticket sales) and $400 in CD sales at her most robust of shows; neither Concertsinyourhome.com nor, generally, hosts collect any of a night's take. ("I've also played at the home of a cocaine-snorting control freak who rearranged his living room about 10 times before show time," she recalls cringingly of one gig (which was, we should note, out of the site's network). "I nearly had a panic attack just being in his presence. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I think I made about $27 that night at the door. He forgot to collect donations because he was clearly pre-engaged.")
But, "house concerts are like a good first kiss," Blacker says. "Raw, intimate and memorable."
While Concertsinyourhome.com is largely the realm of up-and-coming artists, or those seeking to gain steady income via their music after several years of performing, even heavily accomplished veterans enjoy scooting into the living room for shows. Site member Jack Tempchin, Glenn Frey's longtime writing partner, regularly plays house concerts in and around San Diego, where he lives. The pair penned the Eagles' '70s classics "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Already Gone," as well as Frey's 1985's No. 2 hit "You Belong to the City." Tempchin also wrote Johnny Rivers' 1977 top 10 "Swayin' to the Music (Slow Dancin')."
"I'm an artist and I keep writing, so I like to play," he says (adding that he and Frey continue to write together, with the latter currently planning a new album). "For an artist to play a house concert, where the audience is really beamed in, is so powerful. I play my hits, because people want to hear them, but then I get to play a few new songs, too. It gets me out there."
Likewise for the Smithereens' DiNizio, who in 2000 was the spokesperson and chairman of the advisory board for Jim Beam's B.E.A.M. (Benefitting Emerging Artists in Music), which awarded grants (more than $150,000 annually) to rising acts. He says he was "charmed" by the idea of house concerts, which he learned about from one of the B.E.A.M. recipients. "I put the word out on the Internet. Within a week, I was booked in the homes, backyards and living rooms of about 90 Smithereens supporters across the country. They're still among my very good friends."
"I rented an SUV and traversed the country five times," he remembers. "When I went to drop it off afterwards, the lady at the counter looked at the mileage and said, 'Why did you even bother to return this car?' "
With the exposure that house concerts can provide established acts, Tempchin says that he's "fascinated" by the potential of house concerts on a large scale. "A lot of people in their 50s don't want to go to a club anymore. There's the babysitter, the parking, the three-drink minimum … This model, in a way, bypasses the industry. It's so healthy.
"It's kind of like something that would've happened in the '60s. It's people taking the music back, for them and their friends."
By night's end, after two 45-minute sets, a smiling Callaghan mingles in, like at any good party, the kitchen, breaking down the barrier between artist and audience that, at a house concert, was barely there to begin with. "She has a voice like an angel," one new fan praises, while another bonds with her over their shared British heritage (and purchases $120 worth of CDs and T-shirts).
The show at Frank and Maribeth's was clearly a success. The crowd (of 38, it's confirmed) kept its eyes and ears on Callaghan as she sang such "Life in Full Colour" songs as "Best Year," "It Was Meant to Be" and "Close My Eyes"; offered encouragement as she tried out a composition that she'd recently written and had previously yet to play live; and sang, stomped and clapped along to covers of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." After intermission, all the many sports fans in attendance even ascended from the basement, where a big screen TV was showing a Celtics-Knicks NBA playoff game, so as not to miss any of the evening's headline entertainment. (Callaghan and Massey later fully comprehend what a compliment that is when explained that basketball (and all sports, really) is to Boston as to what soccer, or football, is to England.)
Her show ends not due to a club's curfew, but when it feels right. "But, you don't have to go anywhere!" one reclined audience member shouts, and laughter erupts at the realization that the star on stage will be spending the night in a room down the hall.
Still, Callaghan and Massey have a drive to Philadelphia the next day for the second stop of "Callaghan Across America" that night. (In the Midwest, one of their favorite gifts will become an oven mitt with a map of like-shaped Michigan on it, "to help us find our way around," Massey later muses via email from a Utah café. Callaghan adds that they're "already working on next year's route.")
The tour rolls on, Callaghan meets and performs for more of her fans and she and her husband wonder what the next stop will be like, knowing only that, for a night, it'll be their home, too.
"Just don't have cereal in the morning for breakfast before you leave," one Chez Saysull guest advises the pair.
"Frank would be so upset if he doesn't get to cook you something."