Not a Bad Seat in the House

The Matchcoats—Gabriel and Sarah Akins—perform at Immanuel Birmingham on 5th Ave South. Musician Matt Sanderlin plays in the background.

The Matchcoats—Gabriel and Sarah Akins—perform at Immanuel Birmingham on 5th Ave South. Musician Matt Sanderlin plays in the background.

Home concerts give music lovers an up-close view of favorite artists or a chance to discover new ones.

by Chris K. Davidson   Photography by Eric Dejuan

The prospect of entering the house of a person you do not know to spend a few hours with 20 to 40 strangers watching a musician seems, on the surface, nerve wracking and slightly unthinkable. But in its usual magical way, Birmingham makes this situation work.

Granted, these types of performances have been around for decades and the term for them varies depending on the host or event (house shows, living room shows, home concerts, etc.). Solo troubadours in the singer/songwriter, Americana and bluegrass genres make frequent tours through the homes of welcoming fans. In the digital age, websites such as Concerts In Your Home, Fanswell and SoFar Sounds have helped create networks for both parties to easily coordinate the performances. As social media continues to break down the barriers between musicians and audiences, house shows act as an intimate meeting place for live music that is not limited to concert halls, bars, or the festival circuit.

Jamison and Tamara Harper of Smallwood Studios

Jamison and Tamara Harper of Smallwood Studios

In Birmingham, one of the oldest house-concert series is Small Stages, which began in 2007—even earlier, if you count its prior incarnation as the Small Stages Music Connection, which hosted concerts for years before taking a hiatus in the mid-2000s. Small Stages hosts approximately eight concerts a year in different homes and other untraditional venues. “What we’re trying to do is find really cool, under-the-radar acoustic musicians,” says David Bernard, one of Small Stages’ board members and organizers. (Other board members/concert organizers for Small Stages include Shannon Parker, Mark Westfall, and Steve Norris.)

Bernard also sees it as a way to showcase artists on their way up—those long past the point of “playing covers for five drunks in a bar” but not too famous to pass up an opportunity to play for a small group of dedicated music aficionados who happily bring their own chairs, beverages and even the occasional plate of appetizers to share.icc655

“I would biasedly say every concert has been great,” Bernard says, “but a few really stand out. There’s a multi-instrumental band called Humming House, and we hosted them twice after hearing them in a songwriters’ festival. They brought out huge crowds for us and created really fun evenings, and they have since climbed up to different levels. We had another bluegrass duo called Mandarin Orange that has since played Bonnaroo. And then we’ve had a bluegrass band called The Barefoot Movement that subsequently won Band of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

“So we definitely have been able to catch people at little windows in their career where we’ve gotten good artists, good crowds in front of them, and then they’ve gone on to much larger venues.” (Unlike some of the other home concert series, Small Stages focuses exclusively on artists from out of town, simply because they feel local artists already have access to local performance spaces.)

Matt Waldrep is founder of Second Spaces in Birmingham, another local house-concert series that has helped build the popular trend. He says he was inspired by having seen singer/songwriter Derek Webb perform at a house concert.

“Experiencing an artist I’ve seen on a big stage whose music I know really well but in a space without all of the lights, all of the sound system and having some of the showmanship taken away just really captivated me,” he says.

Inspired by this show, Waldrep and his wife opted to try out the format at their own residence. Simply by word of mouth and posts on their personal Facebook profiles, the first show in 2013 featured local songwriters Justin Cross and Wilder Adkins and attracted some 30 people. Waldrep was hooked and started hosting monthly or quarterly shows that eventually included regionally touring artists such as Lowland Hum, Matt Hectorne, Lara Ruggles and Sean Rowe along with local openers that highlight the ever-growing Birmingham music community.

(While Second Series recently announced they are not booking future shows until further notice, they plan to continue “socially supporting artists we like, curating playlists, etc.”)

icc665Over in Avondale, Axel Barron and his wife also began hosting shows at their house in 2012. Known as the Shed Series, the home concert series occurs in Barron’s backyard in front of a large canopy tree and shed. Like other house show venues, Barron encourages guests to bring their own food, drink and lawn chairs which adds to the comfortable aesthetic. The tree, which has been noted as one of the largest five trees in northern Alabama, creates a beautiful and relaxed environment for attendees as they listen to songs from national and international artists such as John Stringer, Andrew Sullivan, Tim and Myles Thompson and Hannah Miller as well as locals such as Rachel Hebert. These musicians give a variety of performances that can range from a typical singer/songwriter set of originals to unique covers of familiar tunes.

“The Shed Series is all about the experience,” says Barron. “The coolest thing to me is the intimacy. Being able to sit down and listen to stories from the musicians and see the world from their vantage point; you just don’t get that from a regular gig.”

“It’s been a real blessing,” Barron continues. “We’ve had some spectacular artists from all over the world that no one has ever heard of. These are some of the best musicians out there right now.”

Though not as formally organized, Casey Patton and his wife are another couple who have been able to host their favorite indie and alternative rock performers over the last several years. The first show at the Patton home was Seattle musician David Bazan, who in 2010 began Living Room Show tours as a way to promote his new album in a low-key manner and limit the financial overhead of his usual full-band club shows. His management company, Undertow Management, sent out inquiries for potential hosts and the Pattons decided to respond.

“I had never heard of the whole house show thing,” Casey says. “I was a huge Pedro the Lion fan as well as his solo material for a long time. I saw that (Bazan) was doing this kind of tour and thought it’d be mind blowing to have him play at my house.”

The Pattons ended up hosting Bazan several times over the next few years. The success of these initial shows encouraged them to bring in underground acts like Rue Royale as well as more established performers such as Mike Doughty of the ’90s alt-rock group Soul Coughing and Nashville’s Derek Webb.icc659

“It’s an easy way for the artists to make money because there’s no overhead,” Patton explains as the reason for band-based songwriters switching to the house show format. “We don’t get paid to host. Some artists will give the host a few free tickets to give out to friends or family. Most of the money they make is all profit. And you get to talk to the artists a good bit after the show because they’re not trying to get off the stage, so you build some of the relationship that way.”

Like touring artists, local musicians find great value in the house show because of the intimacy and attention they receive from audiences.

“You can treat it as a listening room,” says Matt Sanderlin, a Birmingham artist who has played solo and as part of the band Verdure at Second Spaces. “You’re not just at a bar and a side effect of whatever else is going on. It’s you and the audience and you can communicate your sorrows and your joys and your humor very clearly and presently to those in the audience because of your proximity to them.”

The Matchcoats, the husband and wife duo of Gabe and Sarah Akins, have played multiple shows at Second Spaces and The Shed Series. “It’s so funny that listening spaces actually exist,” Gabe says. “They feel so otherworldly to me because in our world, I struggle to see that adults are listening to each other. It’s almost liturgical to me. Listening spaces and the value that’s put into these places is almost healing in a way. It’s part of why you want to speak up as an artist and say something.”

“It also gives people a chance to come talk to you about things you’ve shared through your music,” Sarah adds. “It allows you to strike up a conversation and maybe even start a friendship.”

The Newest Space to Watch:

The Loft Show

Started by Cat Hyman and Josh Cox in March of 2017, The Loft Show features a show at least once a month in loft #101 in the Phoenix Building downtown. A twist on other house concerts, Loft Show events include fine art showings along with live music and other outbreaks of creativity. “We’ve also included comedy, baking, and pop-up shops, and we plan to include other artistic/creative mediums in the future,” Cox says. Upcoming shows include Chandler Jones on Oct. 20 and Hilary Duke, Anthony Tavis, Matt Hires, Kyle Cox, and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster on Oct. 29th.

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