On a warm, clear night in early June, Mikal Shapiro has turned the well-groomed backyard of her Kansas City home into an outdoor music theater.
By TIMOTHY FINN
The Kansas City Star
Amid the flowers and assorted greenery, chairs are arranged in loose rows, facing a spare, makeshift stage. A guitar leans against a stack of sound equipment, not far from the lone microphone.
Dusk is still more than an hour away when Shapiro picks up the guitar, steps to the microphone and welcomes everyone the two guest musicians who will be part of the evenings show and the friends and families who have gathered to listen. Then she begins to perform.
The show is part of the Mama Ra House Concert Series, founded seven years ago by Shapiro and her friend and fellow singer/songwriter, Kasey Rausch. Their intent: Provide a controlled, intimate environment for performers and their audiences, a place where music is the focus.
Its my favorite setting, Shapiro said. The shows are centered around the music. Kids can come, which means parents who love music can actually go out and see some.
Everyone is on the same plane at a house concert, Rausch said. Theres no spotlight, just down-to-earth people sharing an equal giving and receiving of music. Stories are more easily told and heard. For me, thats as important as the song. (It) connects everyone more and more as the evening progresses.
House concerts have been around for decades, but primarily within the folk scene. These days, more and more performers are booking house concerts. As touring becomes the primary way for musicians to make money, many established and well-known singer/songwriters are putting out the call through social media and email lists: Will play in your home, for money, lodging and food.
Steve Poltz has been a touring musician for more than 25 years, as a solo artist and as a member of the Rugburns. In the early 1990s, he and songwriter Jewel became friends and started collaborating. One of their songs, You Were Meant for Me, made it on Jewels debut album, Pieces of You, released in 1995. The song reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart; sales of the album have exceeded 12 million.
As a solo artist, Poltz performs at places like Daveys Uptown Ramblers Club in Kansas City and the Blue Door in Oklahoma City, rooms that hold 100 people or so. But he has also been scheduling house concerts more frequently.
I do a lot, and the number is growing, he told The Star recently. Im on the road for about 200 dates a year, and Id say nearly one-third are house shows.
One of those recent house shows was in Leawood at the home of Poltzs college friend Mark Lindsey. It was the second time Lindsey had a house concert for Poltz. The first was in his basement in 2009; the more recent show was in his backyard.
We had about 50 for the first show and more than 100 this time, Lindsey said. Word-of-mouth was very positive about the first show (so) people turned out based on what mutual friends said about Steves first performance.
For Poltz, house concerts have become a necessity in a music world that is changing rapidly.
You need other ways to make money, he said. The money can be better at a house show, depending on the market. In a place like, say, Lexington, Ky., instead of a show Monday or Tuesday at a bar where I have no guarantee and maybe three people show up and I walk out with $6 which has happened Im more apt to do a house concert, where they usually give you the door.
So with the help of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, Poltz and others who want to book house shows announce to fans: Ill be in your town on this date. Would anyone like to host a house concert?
Thats how Tom Kennedy of Lees Summit booked a house show with Kristin Hersh, formerly of Throwing Muses, in 2008.
She put out the word through her website and email subscribers that she was wanting to do some house shows featuring Appalachian murder ballads, some of which she featured on Murder, Misery and Goodnight, a very interesting record, he said. I jumped at the opportunity and volunteered.
Kennedy sent out Evites to several dozen friends, some of whom were not familiar with Hersh or her music but attended based solely on Kennedys recommendation. He and Hershs husband, who is also her manager, agreed on a price: $20 a person, $30 a couple. About three dozen people attended the show, which was in Kennedys backyard.
I also kicked in a large donation of my own, Kennedy said. I believe we made a little over $800 and Kristin also sold a number of CDs and T-shirts.
Poltz said merchandise usually sells briskly at house shows.
I usually sell way more merch at house shows, he said. I think its because the show is more intimate, and people can get so close to you; they want to take something home with them.
Kristen May, formerly of the band Vedera, said the dynamics of a house show make it easier for the performers to mingle with and get to know the audience.
At a club show, you can meet a ton of people at the merch table, and you want to connect, but youre kind of in a rush, and it can be loud, so its hard to have a conversation, she said. At a house show, you can make a deeper connection. I talk to some people Ive met at house shows every day, either on Facebook or text.
May and her husband, Brian Little, recently did a string of house shows as they made their way from Kansas City to New York and then Kansas City to Los Angeles. They put out the word to their fans that theyd be booking house shows along the way, then built an itinerary based on where they got offers. They negotiated a price with the house owner, who also fed and lodged them.
We booked 40 shows in two months, she said. We drew mostly around 15 people; the biggest was 60. And we sold a ton of merch. At one show, every person bought a T-shirt.
In addition to perhaps a better payday, a house show can be a place where a performer begins to build a following in a city where he or she has none.
You walk into a house concert, etiquette requires that you stop and introduce yourself, Poltz said. You meet people, you meet their friends, you have conversations you wouldnt normally have.
By the time you leave, emails and texts have been exchanged, and a community has started. And lots of times, the next time you play a club in that town, those people show up and recognize each other from the house show.
Hostility from club owners
At this years South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, a panel convened to discuss house concerts.
Among the panelists was Freedy Johnston, a singer/songwriter and former Lawrence resident, who said he started booking house shows because I needed to get gigs when they were harder to find. Now theyre a regular part of my schedule. I try to find house concerts to compliment club dates in towns I havent been to in a while.
The issue of clubs versus house concerts became the focus of the panel discussion. No club owners were on the panel, but some have complained elsewhere that they are losing business to house concerts and that the playing field isnt level.
We got incredible hostility from club owners and regular promoters, said Louis Meyers, executive director of the Folk Alliance International, which is in the process of moving its headquarters from Memphis to Kansas City.
They say, Im losing acts to house concerts. They dont have (licensing) fees, they dont have insurance, they dont have a liquor license, they dont pay advertising fees, they dont have thousands of dollars in bills that every venue deals with to (present) the exact same artists.
However, both promoters and performers say the house shows can help someone build a club audience.
Panelist KC Turner, who promotes and produces a series of house concerts in San Francisco, said his shows are often a stepping-stone for artists trying to get a foothold in the citys music scene. He cited songwriter Amber Rubarth.
I host her several times a year, he said. We always do 80 to 90 seats, and its always wonderful.
In May, four months after he hosted a house show with Rubarth playing solo, she and her band were booked at Café du Nord in San Francisco, a 250-seat venue.
At shows, I push people to get on artists emailing lists, he said. I guarantee you, a large majority of the audience that has come to the house shows will support her because they want to see her grow, and they want to see a different show.
Steve Tulipana, co-owner of RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, said that depending on the performer, a house concert can affect the smaller venues like his.
(They) straight up chip away at our business, he said. I can understand artists and promoters choosing this route to circumvent the expenses because all of that chips away at everyones bottom line. But yes, it hurts small business.
Frank Hicks, owner of Knuckleheads, said he hadnt seen any damage done by house shows.
Most of the artists who do those probably arent going to draw a crowd big enough to play here anyway, he said. Hicks has, however, turned a room in Knuckleheads into a venue where songwriters can perform to crowds of 60 or smaller.
There is a place and a need for both, said Erin McGrane, who has performed at several house shows with the Kansas City acts Alacartoona and the antique-pop duo Victor and Penny.
Going to a club often fulfills a different need, not necessarily a listening experience but perhaps a more social one. The house concert is often more about the performer.
May said, Theyre more a supplemental thing, a way to fill our off days. When we do a club tour, the house shows will be a part of it. Theyre so unique.
Kelley Hunt, songwriter and recording artist from Lawrence, has organized, attended and performed at house concerts for years. She said the clubs and house shows arent necessarily going after the same crowd.
People who seek out house concerts are kind of a closed group who really connect with that specific kind of experience, she said. Theyre sold on the format.
That format is one that benefits the performers and their audience, both say. Cindy Bussjaeger, a longtime Poltz fan, attended Lindseys show. She estimated shed seen Poltz at least 10 times before, but this show was unlike all the others.
The house concert was more intimate, she said. It was a G-rated atmosphere compared to his past performances. There were sing-a-longs with children on stage and a Silver Lining duet with Mark Lindseys daughter. His set list was all across the board, from his Rugburns and Jewel days mixed with old and new material. He wowed me with a cover of Elliott Smiths Thirteen.
Will Leatham, owner of Prosperos Books, 1800 W. 39th St., has been on both sides of the house concert business. Since December 1997, at his home and his store, he has been host to roughly 1,200 music events, he said. He attends shows at nearly all the local venues, from RecordBar and Knuckleheads to the Uptown Theater, Leatham said, but there is something unusual about the vibe of a house show.
The impact an artist has on the audience seems to be so much more profound, and the inverse is true as well: the impact a given audience can have on the performer is palpable, he said. The Shaprios went out of their way to make that performance a pleasant event.
Some local musicians plan to make the house show a more regular part of their performance itinerary. Tommy Donoho of the band Dollar Fox has started his own house-show project he calls Money Wolf. He has booked two events so far.
In June, Money Wolf presented Dollar Fox with Victor and Penny and Dutch & the Derelict, a duo featuring members of Cherokee Rock Rifle. About 100 people attended the show in the backyard of a Waldo home.
Our goal is to make it more unique for the band and attendees, he said. We start early so, by the time were done, you can still go out after. We also encourage groups to do something different from what they normally do. Dollar Fox did a string-band set, which we dont usually do.
Its not a show where you get drunk or loud and rowdy. I noticed the first one we did, they had a lot of people with kids who cant afford sitters all the time. Some were friends who had never seen our band live.
Donoho is already making plans for the next Money Wolf event, and he expects other bands and performers to start using house shows as means of getting exposure and making money. Poltz does, too.
Kennedy said he plans to host two more shows this fall, featuring Amy LaVere and Shannon McNally.
Poltz said he expects to do even more house shows, in the United States and abroad.
The Web has made the world a much smaller place, he said. Everyone is reachable via Twitter or Facebook. I can see (house concerts) becoming an even bigger part of my touring schedule.
• • •
Prosperos isnt the only business booking events in spaces that have the house-concert feel:
• Owner Frank Hicks has turned the back room of Knuckleheads into a small venue that seats about 60 persons. On Wednesday nights, the room becomes Carl Butlers Gospel Lounge. Other nights its the Retro Lounge, with other music genres. Recent performers have included Jon Dee Graham and Marshall Crenshaw.
The Retro Lounge also hosts the Living Room Sessions, which are fashioned like house concerts. On July 12, a Songwriters in the Round will feature Sky Smeed, Adam Lee and Tyler Gregory. On July 19, songwriter John Fullbright will perform as part of the Living Room Sessions series.
• Peregrine Honig can transform Birdies, her intimate-apparel boutique at 116 W. 18th St., into a listening parlor she calls the Bee Stage and has space for about 15 people. She has presented 11 shows so far and has seven more music events and a play on the books over the next three years. Performers have included two former Kansas Citians: songwriter Krystle Warren, who lives in Paris, and tango violinist Christine Brebes, who lives in Buenos Aires.
The Bee Stage is a venue for traveling and local musicians to showcase new projects and perform original pieces to a captive audience, Honig said.
• Nicas 320 on Southwest Boulevard has fashioned its back room into a small venue it calls the Red Room that holds about 70 people.
They dont do music back there every night, but when it is a music night, the back room is dedicated to that event and is separate from the rest of the bar/restaurant, said Erin McGrane, whose duo, Victor and Penny, recently performed two shows in the Red Room with the one-woman act Danielle Ate the Sandwich.
We advertised it as an intimate listening show, McGrane said. We sold out the 70 tickets to the early dinner show and sold about 50 to the late show.
• The Kansas City Academy, 7933 Main St., has launched its Grassroots Music Series in its theater, which holds about 70 people. In January, Brandon Draper, a faculty member and drummer in several Kansas City ensembles, told The Star: It gives the artists a place to go other than a big theater or a music festival or a late-night club. And its so intimate; the audience will feel very connected to the artists.