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Homeward Sound: The Culture of Living-Room Concerts

For touring musicians, the ease and profitability of living-room concerts prove there is no place like home.

Pohlman's world at Off Broadway, by his own admission, is far from perfect. Such is the existence of the owner of even a club as well-­respected as his.

"It's difficult to curate a room in the way Rick does and do 250 shows per year," explains Pohlman. "I think that, because he's done such a good job with it, the economics are less variable to him. The thing that comes into play with us is there's going to be money that changes hands at the end of the night. Sometimes there's going to be enough money coming in at the door, sometimes there's not. Some nights we have great shows that not very many people attend."

Judging from such a frank assessment, it might seem as though Pohlman is seething with jealousy in regard to Wood's setup. But that's not the case. In fact, Pohlman and Wood are frequent business partners, joining forces a few years back when both set their sights on bringing singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw to St. Louis.

Alabama Shakes plays a small backyard house show as part of 2012's South by Southwest.
Nate Burrell
Alabama Shakes plays a small backyard house show as part of 2012's South by Southwest.

"We had mutual friends who knew Marshall Crenshaw, [so we teamed up] for Marshall to fly in from the East Coast and have two gigs instead of booking a full tour," recalls Wood.

Shortly thereafter, Wood and Pohlman lured Austin punk-turned-roots-rocker Alejandro Escovedo to their respective spaces with the same gambit. They've been teaming up ever since.

"It makes St. Louis more attractive as a potential stop for them to know they can get two shows in one location," Pohlman explains.

And counterintuitively, it's often the house show that seals the deal.

"I don't think it's possible to overestimate how great it is for artists to play at Rick's place, and how much they enjoy it," says Pohlman. "A lot of the shows we sort of do together, the deciding factor is probably driven by Rick. It allows us to piggyback on that and get an artist who might not have come to the market to just do a club show. It gives them some certainty to come to town and know they'll have a great house show."

That's not to say all artists are in lockstep in their affinity for living-room shows; some are wary of ticking off venue owners with whom they've forged mutually beneficial relationships over the years. "I asked [Americana mainstay] Fred Eaglesmith why he didn't play house shows, and essentially what he said was he wanted to have a club to play next time he comes to town," says Pohlman. "Some artists feel a partnership with venues. Venues provide a place for bands to play consistently over time that I think house shows, by their nature, don't."

Austin's James McMurtry, perhaps America's greatest living male songwriter (not boasting the initials B and D, anyway), puts a finer point on it. "I don't like private shows," he says prior to playing a recent concert near Seattle. "You're a kept man; they own you for the night. A club show, it's a joint venture. I sell seats, the club sells liquor. It's much more comfortable. You might get screwed on the deal, but it's an honest fucking."
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While Wood's house shows are regarded by Midwestern practitioners as critical to the flowering of the regional scene, the late '90s saw the emergence of a notable Southeastern forerunner, with Cary and Cockrell factoring in there as well.

Steve Gardner left northern California for North Carolina's Research Triangle in 1996, intent on earning a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina and basking in a killer roots-music scene. He soon achieved neither goal. A gig spinning records at Duke University's campus radio station WXDU begat a job with the seminal alt-country label Sugar Hill, which permanently waylaid Gardner's plans for higher learning.

But as immersed in music as he became, Gardner was frustrated by the lack of live programming that catered to listeners like him.

"I moved to North Carolina and was expecting to see a lot of rootsy music," says Gardner, now a real estate agent. "But I wasn't seeing much of it and got tired of waiting."

As fatigue set in, Gardner and a friend, Bill Tolbert, began renting a big house on a sprawling plot of land in Durham. Out front they salvaged a random sign that said Pine Hill Farm, assigned the moniker to the property and in 1998 started booking private shows, charging $10 a head and skimming only for folding-chair rentals. Over the next five years, Gardner and his roommates "did 50 or 60 shows in that house," stopping only when the home's owners — who were completely oblivious of their tenants' endeavor despite ample press — decided they wanted to move back in.

In addition to local standouts like Cary and Cockrell, Gardner and his cohorts booked acts like Escovedo, the Drive-By Truckers, Tift Merritt, Josh Rouse, Richard Buckner, Bobby Bare Jr. and the Backsliders.

"They had such a big impact on the industry," says Cockrell of the Pine Hill concerts. "[Artists] realized they could do better playing these house concerts. [The homeowner is] not going to take money off the top, and you're gonna sell a helluva lot of merch."

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6 comments
1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

Shoulda' checked out Bill Mallonee, who exists almost solely on house shows.  Not to mention the fact that he was voted #65 of the top 100 songwriters by Paste magazine.

WhiteLightning
WhiteLightning

my problem with most house concerts is they are often somewhat precious. i'll still take a noisy club over a house show any night.

kangoids
kangoids topcommenter

Long Live the Wood House Concerts!

Where else will Alejandro Escovedo come right up to you, stick out his hand and say "Hi! I'm Al"? 

 
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