Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.

Bruce Turns 60

To celebrate Bruce Springsteen’s 60th birthday, I’m posting an essay I wrote about his “Rising” tour six years ago. An evening sharing a concert with Springsteen is as close as I get to church these days.

In those days, my 5-year-0lds once got into a car with a babysitter and asked her to put on “The Rising.” She didn’t have it. “What’s wrong with you?” they asked. Today, I’m proud they know the lyrics to the Springsteen canon. Here’s that essay.

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Bruce Springsteen knows that healing is a painful journey, but not one without its joys. He knows, too, that dealing with grief isn’t linear or logical. Pain precedes celebration, which precedes more pain and then a sort of reluctant acceptance.

Pick the wound that needs healing. The death of a loved one. The loss of national innocence. A crisis of faith, religious or otherwise. He’s just ambitious enough and just humble enough to think that in three hours he can push us towards understanding and reaffirming our hopes for the better future.

That’s why his traveling revival show, which comes to a sold-out Richmond Coliseum on Thursday, may be the most emotional rock and roller coaster ride ever, plunging into despair then breaking through to joyous, affirming highs.

When I saw him last August in Washington, D. C., Springsteen and the E Street Band drove us to our knees with that first harsh slap of grief, let us up for that celebratory realization we’d been spared, plunged us back into despair and finally carried us along on a celebration of the hope central to life.

When the lights finally came up for the last time and the band had descended into the black netherland below the stage that night, faith had been restored, if only fleetingly. How else can you explain 22,000 souls shouting joyously along to the line from “Badlands” that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive?”

While shorter than the marathon three-hour concerts of the past, Springsteen’s current show packs a more powerful punch. At the MCI Center, he rarely spoke, abandoning the often-long stories that once introduced tunes. He seemed to realize there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t sound trite.

Instead, he spoke with his hands, often his right hand displayed on the overhead video screen. At times, he needed supplication, his palm up, beseeching. During other songs, his fingers stretched out, offering comfort. And often, very often, he raised his right hand overhead, volunteering a benediction.

What will be interesting on this second leg of “The Rising” tour is how Springsteen adjusts the set list for the times. His 1988 tour for “Tunnel of Love” explored the often contradictory themes of that album intensely early in the tour, but by the end he had largely slipped back into the rock and roll house party of the “Born in the USA” shows.

Springsteen performances appear spontaneous when they are carefully constructed, down to the last detail. The set list he created for “The Rising” show was masterful.

He opened with “The Rising” followed by “Lonesome Day,” songs chronicling the first moments of loss, that deep, bottomless empty feeling. When he launched into “Prove It All Night,” the song in this context was transformed from its appearance on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” This night, it was about faith, about getting through to that first night with the bed empty next to you.

I’ve always felt “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was Springsteen’s best album. Proof on this tour is how well four tunes from the album fit with a set list dominated by songs centered on the 9/11 tragedy.

“Darkness on the Edge of Town,” performed early in the set, takes on a larger meaning.  “I lost my faith and I lost my wife,” Springsteen sang, substituting the word “faith” for “money,” which is in the original. “Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.”

“Darkness” provided the entry into the most chilling part of the show, with Springsteen stepping to the microphone and asking the audience  — the audience at a rock and roll show — to be silent for the next two songs. “I know,” he said, “that you can do it.” We could.

When silence and darkness descended over the arena, he began a mournful, suffering acoustic version of “Empty Sky” with only Patti Scialfa’s harmonies for accompaniment. He followed with “You’re Missing,” a second, chilling body blow. They were a risky and extraordinary pairing. It’s one thing to explore loss before an audience in a small club or theater. It’s another to prod  22,000 souls intent upon reliving their rock and roll glory days to do it in the MCI Center.

From the depths, Springsteen brought us into the light, following with a bright, acoustic guitar-army sing-along of “Waitin’ for a Sunny Day.” Like several songs from “The Rising,” it works better in the new, less-cluttered live arrangement.

With the light, there followed a search for understanding, pairing “The Promised Land” from the “Darkness” album with “Worlds Apart” from “The Rising.”

“There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor. I’ve got my bags packed and I’m headed into the score. Gonna be a twister that blows everything down that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground,” he sang, joined lustily by the crowd. They are lyrics from 1978, but they could easily be from Sept. 12, 2001.

Two songs later, “Badlands,” another “Darkness” gem, speaks to today perhaps even more eloquently than it did when released 25 years ago. “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland,” he sang. “Got a head-on collision mashing in my guts, man. I’m caught in a crossfire I don’t understand.”

But he’s not lost for long. “I believe in the love that you gave me,” he affirms. “I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands.”

“Badlands” artfully segued into the house party centerpiece of the show, a rollicking version of “Mary’s Place,” destined to follow in the steps of other live workouts like “Rosalita” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

“Mary’s Place” is deceptive, more than a simple sing-along. It’s about a wake, about gathering around the family with food and music, a reality Springsteen highlighted by grasping the microphone, crumbling to his knees and singing the coda, “you’re missing, you’re missing” before launching into the final verse about having a picture in his locket leading him through the dark and then letting the audience sing along: “Seven days, seven candles lighting your way. You’re favorite record’s on the turntable. I drop the needle and play. Turn it up, Turn it up Turn it up.”

He knows the celebration of a wake eventually gives way to the lonely reality of loss so the show featured another dip into grief with “Into the Fire.” It’s a rock and roll meditation that could easily take its place alongside Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s “Gentle Arms of Eden” in a modern hymnal.

“The sky was falling and streaked with blood. I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust. Up the stairs, into the fire. Up the stairs, into the fire,” he sang. “May your strength give us strength. May your faith give us faith. May your hope give us hope. May your love give us love.”

At the MCI Center, as well as throughout the tour, “Into the Fire” closed the show. With Springsteen, of course, the last song is just a table setter for the encores.

“Thunder Road” and “Glory Days” opened the first encore. But the climactic catharsis, the rock and roll rapture of the evening was delivered by “Born to Run.” The house lights came up full as the band charged into the anthem, transforming the cavernous coliseum into a cozy little revival tent.  It’s hard to describe it as anything other than the release of pure joy, thousands of true believers standing, pumping their fists and screaming along. We’re all getting old, facing the inevitable, but for four minutes, the past vanished and we could imagine that the future was still boundless and tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.

Before we left, there were reminders that nothing is assured —  “American Skin (41 Shots),” Springsteen’s brilliant look at the Amadou Diallo killing from the viewpoint of the cops, the victim and his mother — and “Born in the USA,” his indictment of the treatment of Vietnam vets.

If that took us down, Springsteen didn’t leave us there. He went to the piano alone to open “My City of Ruins” then the tune built into a gospel band number worthy of the late Curtis Mayfield.

In Washington, as on most tour stops, the band closed with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” symbolic of the journey Springsteen takes his audience on over two and a half hours.

He’d opened the show singing: “Can’t see nothing in front of me. Can’t see nothing coming up from behind. Make my way through this darkness. Can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me.”

By the end of the evening, he’d managed something rare in music today, a night of purpose, meaning and a soothing dose of rock and roll redemption.

For the close, he transported us, inviting us aboard the train of saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, and lost souls to meet him in the land of hope and dreams. “Leave behind your sorrows. Tomorrow they’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past,” he sang, offering succor.

Fittingly, he and the band closed with an acapella verse from another revival train tune, Mayfield’s “People Get Ready:”

“People get ready; there’s train a comin’. Don’t need no ticket. Just get on board.”

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