As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the music business continues to splinter and transmogrify in the face of continuing technical advances and resulting changes in the way consumers obtain music. Digital downloads - legal and illegal -- have transformed the music industry from a business model ruled by major corporate conglomerates into a free-for-all environment that's increasingly unpredictable, volatile and independently focused.
But the old saying, what goes around comes around, can certainly be applied to a very interesting and growing segment of the live music marketplace. Barnlike amphitheaters with seating for more than 20,000 may dominate today's summer touring schedules, but there's a growing movement to provide live music in the ultimate intimate venue: someone's house or living room.
Logically enough, these events are called house concerts, and they seemed to have a resurgence a couple of decades ago - especially on the West coast. The phenomenon has continued to grow, and a small group of St. Louis music lovers have been hosting house concerts over the past few years - attracting a loyal fan base that is eager to enjoy music upclose.
Such concerts do not happen weekly or with any sort of regularity. You have to keep checking websites or get on email lists to find out about what's scheduled and to have a shot at the very limited number of tickets.
Rick and Nancy Wood have been presenting house concerts in their home since July 2005. Recently, I attended a concert there featuring singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill and her band, who were also performing at Off Broadway the next evening for a public concert appearance.
The band was set up in a room framed by the kitchen counter on one side, a sliding glass door to an outside patio in the backyard behind them, and plenty of seating in front and in a room to the left. About 80 people came, many of them regular attendees and friends of the Woods. Everyone had been asked to bring food as well as whatever they wanted to drink, and a wildly eclectic potluck spread of appetizers and desserts filled a side room.
Once Cowsill and the band took the stage and kicked off the music, it was easy to understand the appeal of hearing and experiencing live music in such an intimate environment. Not only was everyone seated literally within 25 feet of the music, it was also clear that Cowsill and the other musicians were clearly at ease and among friends. That was confirmed by Cowsill in between sets at the performance.
"I played at Rick and Nancy's house several years ago," recalls Cowsill, "and it was so much fun! It really helps in terms of touring as well in filling in dates when you're on the road. For this one, we're playing Off Broadway tomorrow night, so we have to make sure we're doing different music at both events so we don't take away from that public performance."
Since Cowsill and the band focused on playing the Simon and Garfunkel album, "Parley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" at the house concert, Cowsill only performed a tune or two from her recent CD, "Lighthouse" - telling those in the audience to come out to Off Broadway to hear the rest of the new recording.
After the second set ended and the band had the opportunity to mingle and talk with the audience, the event slowly broke up as people drifted away to their cars. A few days after the event, I had a chance to talk with Rick Wood about the experience of putting on house concerts. Wood has been involved in the St. Louis music scene for many years with Twangfest and has also put together some compilation recordings of alt-country bands.
My first question was obvious. How did you get started doing this - and why?
"Over the years, Nancy and I have become pretty connected with a lot of St. Louis area music fans," Wood says. "Our friendship has extended beyond just our shared interest in music, and a lot of these folks are now part of a broader community of friends. Our house has an open layout that works well as an intimate setting for live music, so everything just fell into place."
For the Woods, the matter became an issue of "when" rather than "why" in terms of hosting a house concert. The opportunity came when the musical duo of Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell were on tour in the summer of 2005, and were trying to find a venue to perform in St. Louis. Several clubs were either already booked on possible dates or not interested, so the Woods decided it was time to try hosting a concert at their home.
"We set up our first house concert on less than a week's notice," Wood says. Caitlin and Thad's "Begonias" album was just out, and I was listening to it every day when we got the call asking about the possibility of hosting them.
"We didn't really know what we were doing or what to expect, but as soon as the music started up, all of the worry and hassle associated with getting ready for the show just evaporated and all 60 of us just fell under the spell of something we had never really witnessed before: sweet steel guitar and haunting fiddle backing some breathtaking country harmonies right there in our living room.
"Early the next morning while the band was still asleep upstairs, Nancy and I sat in the same room, not quite believing how different things were just a few hours before!"
Since that first concert in July 2005, the Woods have hosted more than 50 other performances at their home. It's been a learning experience - building an email list to notify people about the concerts, arranging for equipment and handling all the usual unpredictable occurrences of dealing with musicians on tour. But according to Wood, it's something that has evolved naturally. In fact, the Woods biggest problem at this point is that they have so much demand to attend their house concerts that they sell out almost immediately.
"Our biggest 'problem' at this point is that we now have an email list much larger than the capacity of our house," Wood says. "We will often max out on RSVPs for a house concert just from a limited round of initial invitations to our long-time friends and supporters before we get a chance to invite our entire email list. But that's a good thing."
Rick and Nancy Wood are not the only ones hosting house concerts in the St. Louis area. There's a Ranch house concert series in the Olivette area that has been ongoing since 2007. Don Christy, on the board at the Folk School of St. Louis, has also begun to host concerts as well. Bill Christman's Joe's Cafe is a private venue that hosts performances by St. Louis-based musicians.