- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

You wouldn't think that packing in 30 to 70 strangers into your living room, basement or attic would have a bonding effect. But somehow, sitting cheek by jowl on hard folding chairs with people you've never met before can be a profoundly unifying experience.
"People hang on every note," says Connie McKenna, a member of the folk group Ceoltoiri who has been to many house concerts both as a performer and as a member of the audience. "All of us have lingering memories of the days when people would sit around the fire and tell stories and sing songs. We need that kind of connection."
House concerts are increasing in popularity in the metropolitan Washington area as suburbanites and city dwellers open up their living rooms for musical evenings. Perhaps it's the way the sound bounces off familiar things, like curtains and pillows and family pictures, without originating in a CD player. Maybe it's the harmonizing the audience will probably get to do at some point in the evening. Or maybe it's the fact that for once, audience and musician are sitting face to face without the benefit of a microphone or the safety of a scrim.
"There's something about gathering together people in your living room," says Steve Key, a veteran of the house concert circuit who now puts on his own folk shows at area churches. "The energy of that many people in such an intimate space there's a real trade-off of energy."
Increasingly, a house concert can be one of the few places to find the kind of music that most house concertgoers seem to enjoy. Established venues such as the Cellar Door and Food for Thought, which once gave airtime to mid- and upper-level artists, are long gone. The situation for folk and acoustic music on the radio is even worse, says Craig Williams, manager of the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park.
"A lot of radio stations are turning away from the field in favor of all-talk formats," he says. "It's definitely a more corporate view, made by people fresh out of college who don't really understand or want to understand the mission or sense of purpose of the folk music scene."
The scene has taken some direct hits in recent years, Mr. Williams says. One radio station revamped its format and removed popular folk and acoustic music host Lee Michael Dempsey, to the chagrin of a loyal listening audience.
"They canned him after he had been voted the best folk and acoustic music DJ in the country," Mr. Williams says. "But you have to ask, does this town really need more talk?"
House music concerts are one way to get around the gab. Still, there is a somewhat murky relationship between house concerts and concerts held at more traditional venues, like those hosted by the Institute of Musical Traditions back in 1988.
"Sometimes, house concerts can draw away from our clientele base," says Mr. Williams, who performs with his own band, Pyrates Royale, at venues ranging from Thai restaurants to the Cramer Center in Manassas. "But other times, [they] can help us. A lot depends on the popularity of the performer."
"Everybody's looking for a place to play," says Cletus Kennelly, a singer-songwriter who will be performing Feb. 23 as part of Gene Dawson's house concert series.
Most house concert hosts are not musicians themselves, although a few, such as Mr. Dawson, have been known to encourage those attending to bring their own instruments for a song circle at the end of the evening.
"I'm kind of the new guy in house concerts, so I wanted to do something special," says Mr. Dawson, who hosts house concerts out of his 95-year-old home in North Potomac. "I go ahead and tell people to bring their instruments. Of course, I get a chance to sing, too."
That's a nice way to end an evening for Mr. Dawson, who manages real estate assets for a Fortune 500 company. "Music is such a great release," he says. "And it's nice to share it with people who feel the same way about it that you do."
For those accustomed to having to compete with bar chatter, rattling dishes and smoke, the atmosphere of a house concert can be just the ticket.
"Folk music is kind of hard to convey in bars," Mr. Key says. "People don't really listen. In a house concert, everyone is focused on the music."

Sometimes, they are also fo- cused on the house.Recently, Carrie and Rob Sivak opened the doors of their home in Silver Spring for a concert to benefit two local folk organizations, Class Acts and Mo' Folk Music Productions. Last year, Class Acts sponsored 2,400 performances at area schools and nursing homes. Mo' Folk Music works to preserve folk traditions, and is working to extend its range to West Virginia.
Reason enough indeed to make the trek to Silver Spring on a rainy Sunday night. But audience members had still another compelling motive.
"What these walls have heard I just can't believe," says Miss McKenna, a WAMMIE award-winning vocalist known for her renditions of traditional ballads. "This is such a memory space for so many people."
It was in this house in the 1940s that Ruth Crawford Seeger wrote "American Folksongs for Children," still considered the Bible of children's folk music. Son Pete came down frequently from New York or Boston to jam with some of the Seegers' invited guests, including Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson and Leadbelly.
"I love the idea of returning music to this living room," says Carrie Sivak, who along with husband Rob is raising three daughters in the house.
It is a sentiment that seems to be shared by many in the audience, some of whom, like Miss McKenna, are musicians in their own right. Soon, the music is spilling out the door into the rainy street. Even the performers seem a little awed by the house's pedigree. Brother-and-sister duo Sanford and Lena Markley settle down to a tightly harmonized set of original pieces about parenting or lost love that seem to resonate with the group.
Later, Seattle-based Chic Street Man seems loath to stop playing, perhaps as much captivated by the response of the audience members as they are with him. But then, who would want to stop? Halfway through his set, he has the audience, which now includes the Markleys, singing along to a wide variety of songs from the topical, folk, and blues traditions.
With so many singers in the house, the sound is close, and real, and true, like nothing you would ever hear in a concert hall or festival.

Like most things, house con- certs have a practical dimension as well as an aesthetic one. Most hosts set out a basket for donations, usually in the $10-15 range, for the musicians. Most hosts provide snacks of some sort, but don't tap into the pot to recoup their expenses. And the pre-concert preparation cooking, cleaning, and set-up is done with the help of a few faithful volunteers.
"My mother jokes that the only reason I have house concerts is to give me a reason to clean up the house," jokes Kim Kaplan, who has been hosting concerts in her Forest Glen home for the last five years. "But really, I'm just a music lover."
Given copyright restrictions, many musicians perform only their own compositions during house concerts. That's not to say that all house concerts offer the same kind of music. Some, like Miss Kaplan's feature traditional musicians like Seamus Kennedy and Danny Doyle, with the occasional singer-songwriter thrown in.
Recently, Miss Kaplan hosted Deidre Flint, a singer-songwriter known for a Christine Lavin-like brand of humor. Featured songs included "Bridesmaid's Revenge" and "Vision Quest," an extended riff about finding the right man.
"She's so high energy and so sharp-witted," says Miss Kaplan. "I love the way she writes."
Many hosts develop a close relationship with performers, even putting them up if they need a place to stay.
"You have to like the performer and the music," says Miss Kaplan. "Otherwise, why go to the trouble?"

Still, house concerts can be a cause for concern to some musicians, who fear that the circuit is taking the music underground.
"The whole folk music scene is battling for public recognition," Mr. Key says. "Generally, you're not going to find a listing of house concerts in your local newspapers. There's a danger of turning it into a kind of exclusive club."
But for midlevel musicians who have not quite made it to places like the Barns at Wolf Trap, a house concert can be an important stepping stone to a larger showcase.
Many performers use house concerts as a kind of pit stop between two larger gigs. So a singer-songwriter traveling from say, Baltimore to Charlotte, may well want to stop off in Northern Virginia for a quick concert.
"It's better than an empty night," Miss Kaplan says. "And it's a chance to try out some new material."

In an age when many people increasingly spend their spare time huddled alone over a computer, it's rather nice to see the collection of folks that come out for your typical house concert. In fact, a house concert can be one of the few music venues in town where it is actually OK to be sitting next to someone who is not of your generation.
"People feel comfortable bringing their children, coming alone, whatever," says Paula Moore of Moore's Music in the House in Rockville. "Everybody seems to enjoy the evening on some level."
During the Seeger house concert, Miss McKenna's son, Artie Sadtler, 7, was on the edge of his seat, within spitting distance of the performers, singing along and clapping his hands as if Chic Street Man were singing just for him.
Ironically, this seeming throwback to an earlier time of neighborly entertainment and music in front of the fire owes much to two 21st-century mainstays e-mail and the Internet.
"The Internet has made life a lot more possible," Miss Kaplan says. "I can e-mail people around the world and not have to worry about long-distance phone calls. And I can have a growing mailing list and not have to worry about postage."
Hosts find themselves inundated with CDs and press packets from artists of whom they had never heard. It seems that there are a lot more people who want to perform than there are houses available. Many hosts travel to folk music conferences to audition new talent.

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