I love playing house shows!” exclaims singer-songwriter Otis Gibbs, a longtime Indianapolis musician who recently relocated to Nashville. “There are no pretensions about any of it. I can sit around with people who love music, in their homes telling stories and singing songs and we can actually have conversations between songs. I’ve done quite a few across the country and even in the U.K.” Musician Otis Gibbs is also a fan of attending living room shows. “If there is someone who I am a big fan of, I’d rather see them at a house concert than anywhere else.”
A house concert is simply that: a concert in a house. They have been around since Neanderthals were blowing on bone flutes in caves. Chamber music originated in homes in the Middle Ages. In America, the home has always been the center of music; there were dances in cabins with local fiddlers and soirees in the Southern plantations.
The modern house concert, however, is a fairly new phenomenon. Acoustic living room shows have been around for decades, but now there are enough of them, linked by the Internet, to constitute an actual scene. A house concert does not necessarily need to be held in a private home. The house concert vibe can also be found in coffeehouses, churches, backyards and community centers.
The Internet has allowed anyone to book and promote concerts. Small towns, rural areas and suburbs with no acoustic music venues are now able to regularly bring in touring musicians. The template for hosting a house concert is pretty simple: invite the musicians you like to play, tell your friends and other music-minded folks and open your doors.
There is no exact timeline for the modern era of house concerts in Indianapolis. The much missed CATH coffeehouse started hosting shows in 1998, using the house concert model. There were candles on the tables, lights dimmed and music was the focus of the evening. They didn’t use the cappuccino machine or cash register when musicians were playing. The performers used to joke that the milk frothing between songs sounded like sustained applause at Madison Square Garden. All of the money collected went to the touring singer/songwriters, who often slept on the coffeehouse manager’s sofa.
The Indy Folk Series, which started in 2001, continues to host concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis. The series features acoustic music in a house concert setting and showcases local performers and touring artists playing folk, bluegrass, Celtic and other styles.
Cathy Schneider and Joyce Walker formed the Indy Indie concert series in 2003 to showcase independent women musicians. The series has grown from a neighborhood clubhouse to booking shows at Key Cinema and summer music festivals.
It did not take much convincing for Cyndi Parrett Wagner to open her home for the Home Fields Advantage concert series. She had attended several shows when they were held at Cary Allen Fields’ home. “Cary and Kristi were expecting their first child, and Cary mentioned they were probably going to cancel the remaining shows. I didn’t hesitate to offer my house to keep his house concert series going. And then it went into year two … and now Cary already has year three planned. It’s a wonderful hobby!”
Parrett Wagner’s home is tucked on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Nora neighborhood. Inside her cozy home, the kitchen counters are loaded with food contributed to the pitch-in by the guests — the highlight is always Wagner’s homemade soup. The living room furniture is tucked in the garage, and the room is lined with rows of chairs, enough to seat 25, with the overflow crowd tucked in the dining room door and the entryway. The checked curtains at the front of the room make the perfect background for the musicians.
As in Wagner’s case, generally house concerts are a labor of love. “It’s an amazing experience! You have fine acoustic musicians playing in someone’s living room — a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. It’s a small group — about 25. Everyone who comes is interested in the music being played and the fellowship that occurs as we all interact together. The artists become very real as they talk about their experiences and how a particular song was written.”
There were several factors that inspired Fields to start the monthly bluegrass tinged series. “Indy has the advantage of a geographical location that is between several major cities. You would be amazed at the level of talent that passes through town and just keeps right on going! Hosting the radio shows, I often receive inquiries from national acts looking for a venue in our area in order to tie a Louisville appearance to one in Chicago, for example.”
Fields, the host of the Fields of Bluegrass Radio Hour and the Saturday night edition of The Free Zone on WICR, describes the house concert experience: “Hearing musicians perform to a small, attentive audience that is there to listen is a very different animal than the kind of listening that takes place in a bar setting. Nuance. Understatement. Immediacy. Intimacy. All are readily attainable in a house concert setting, and there is no need for amplification. For both the musician and the audience, that is a singular experience.”
The musicians generally play two sets, with time for socializing with the musicians during the break and before and after the show. The Home Field Advantage series adds a unique twist to the evening: a poetry reading to kick off the second set. “Norbert Krapf and his wife, Katherine, have been a huge part of the house concert picture since the beginning.” Krapf, in the running for Indiana poet laureate, “is also a big baseball fan, [and] named the series, and his poetry readings have contributed so much to these things,” Fields adds.
“Though we have often hosted national acts, our loyalty is to locally produced music first. We started contacting our favorite artists and went from there. There are several local favorites such as Tim Grimm, Jason Wilber and Otis Gibbs, among others, that have been given their own month and appear annually.”
One of Wagner’s favorites is the annual Otis Gibbs Christmastime show. In the audience for last year’s Gibbs show were Kyle and MaryBeth Jackson. Attending that show inspired the Jacksons to host musician Jeff Black for the first show in their newly remolded living room. They had been kicking around the thought of a house concert for quite a while and the idea jelled after they attended the show.
“It was wonderful,” Kyle Jackson said. “We realized we love music and we love having parties and we have many musician friends. When you add that up, you simply throw a party, invite your friends, invite a musician friend and ask your other friends to give the musician their money. It’s only natural.”
The mantra of Kyle Jackson’s Flat Earth Records, an independent record label based in Indianapolis, is “Good Music by Good People,” so house concerts are a natural extension of that.
The Jacksons hosted their first show in March. “Through Flat Earth we have made lots of friends and heard a lot of amazing music,” Jackson explained. “The Jeff Black show was amazing. Forty people, mostly friends, sitting in our living room listening to wonderful songs and stories. We were both overwhelmed and excited to do it again.”
The Jacksons’ home features a big airy living room next to their open kitchen. Half of the guests chatting, eating and laughing before the show and during the break hadn’t met the couple before that evening. They heard about the show from Black’s Web site and were thrilled to see him in such an intimate space. Most of them were singing along and requesting songs.
MaryBeth Jackson summed up the Black show: “At first, I was a little weirded-out by having strangers come into our private space. But the people who came to listen to Jeff that we didn’t know were so kind and nice to meet! It’s a good reminder to me that if the artist is someone we respect and love, then his friends are our friends. One of my favorite parts of hosting Jeff was after everyone had gone home and we stayed up for another couple of hours cleaning up and talking over a couple of beers. You can’t do that at the Vogue!”
After the success of the Black concert, the Jacksons quickly booked their next show. Kyle Jackson announced the show: “Otis Gibbs is simply amazing, a true Hoosier hero. I’ve said it for years that he should be the next Johnny Cash. We love him.”
Jane and Steve Ruemmele hosted their first house concert in 2002. “We heard that Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens was doing ‘Living Room Concerts,’ as he called them. I sent him an e-mail to inquire, and before we knew it, we had our first house concert. We love music and enjoy meeting musicians, so hosting the events allows us to get to know the artists. The artists have also spent the night with us; it’s been wonderful enjoying the casual moments before and after the show.” And from there the Kessler House Concert Series was born.
“It may have spoiled me for ever listening to music at a commercial venue again!” declared John Pinella after experiencing his first-ever living room show at the Kessler House Concert Series last month.
Pinella was not familiar with house concerts and not sure what to expect, “I didn’t know if it would be odd or if it would be really great.” Overall, the experience “was beyond great. You know, at any venue, you are sitting next to people that you don’t know, and you will run into people that you do, and you might make a friend. But at this house concert, anyway, you get to meet the artist too. And everything is so low key; you almost get the idea the guitar could get passed around. Luckily, that didn’t happen! There was definitely a lot of back and forth banter and a bit of a sing-along. Jim Bianco was way funnier, his songs were better and he was a better storyteller than I ever would have imagined. And I know the vibe that Jane and Steve set up contributed to that.”
Indy Hostel started booking shows after CATH coffeehouse closed four years ago. Proprietor John Newton describes a show at the hostel: “Imagine having talented performers in your living room, with interesting friends in attendance and some tasty treats on the kitchen table. It becomes a great social event revolving around very special music. It’s a great place to see a show.”
As with most house concert series, booking shows at the hostel became easier over time. “We have a reputation for holding wonderful shows, and more musicians are finding out about the venue. We are contacted weekly by several artists who are interested in a show. We also work with a local promoter, Robin Coleman with Segment of Society Productions, to put together some events. We aren’t able to get everyone on stage but select a few each month to bring in a handful of great shows.
“Each show at the hostel is a memorable and special evening. The performers are available to converse and hang with before and after the show as well as on breaks. It’s much more of a personal experience with the music and the artists. We have a great time.
“I am continually amazed at the feedback we get when holding these intimate performances; people really enjoy the shows at the hostel. We get a lot of return attendees who for many different reasons have made the hostel their venue of choice. Maybe it’s the non-smoking, all-ages, non-coffeehouse noises and environment. But I think it’s mostly the great shows on a fun stage.”
Each concert series has its own vibe. Some are very family-friendly. One of Fields’ motivations for starting the series was the chance for children to be included. “I feel very strongly about the ‘little pickers’ having the opportunity to be exposed to good music in their formative years.” In fact one of Fields’ best series memories is “falling in love with the cute girl that used to sit on the stairs leading up to the second floor. We are now happily married and expecting our second child in August.”
Wagner echoes, “Kids are welcome, so they get to experience live music up close; it’s very family-friendly. I have a son in high school and one in college. I’ve been able to expose them to music they would never otherwise get a chance to hear. Luckily, they’re open-minded enough to want to listen. When Jim Hurst played, there was a child in the front row that was learning to play the guitar. He was able to ask Jim several thoughtful questions during the performance, and Jim very graciously answered his questions.”
Typically all of the money collected at the shows is given directly to the musicians. The hosts generally offer lodging and meals for out-of-town performers. The artists are given a built-in attentive audience of music-minded folks, who are there to listen and experience the music. The musicians don’t have to compete with chatter from a bar crowd, cappuccino machines or clanking beer bottles. CD sales are generally good, and the musicians are able to add to their mailing list. It is no wonder that there are performers who are starting to base their tour routing on house concert gigs, rather than use them as fill-ins for nights they are not booked in clubs.
There is plenty of encouragement and enthusiasm from current house concert hosts for anyone who wants to open their home for a show. Fields offers, “This is something anyone with an average-sized living room and a passion for music can make happen. I’d be happy to walk you through the process.”
Ruemmele shares, “Support live music, local and national. Musicians love to have their music heard and really appreciate attentive crowds. Living room concerts give the artists that connection to the audience that makes for a magical evening for everyone.”
MaryBeth Jackson “really hope[s] the house concert movement takes off in Indy. I know in other cities it is quite common. A good venue is hard to find and if your home can provide that, it’s the best of all worlds. It’s a great way to connect people with the musicians and the music in an incredibly approachable setting.”
“Support local and traveling songwriters,” Kyle Jackson asserts. “Authentic American music is one of the biggest gifts America has given the world. Music can create positive change in our lives and the world, and through house concerts we can change our community one living room and one concert at a time.”
H.P. Lovecraft must have had something against basements. All of his best, most terrifying stories reference some eldritch terror lurking in a foreboding cellar. Despite the splendid “terrifying vistas of reality” present in his works, Lovecraft was kind of a chump. He was a pathetic racist and I can wager that he never once attended a punk rock basement show. Had he attended a basement show, he would have kept his witches and serpents confined to the attic.
Here in Indianapolis, miles away from the Miskatonic, the basement scene is the last bastion of hope for music in the city. Sure, Punk Rock Night at the Melody Inn is always a blast, but one should never forget the bitter sting of rejection that Punk Rock Night brings to the under-21 crowd. And, to be honest, aside form Lockstep, can you name one punk band still touring today that doesn’t have half their fan base still underage? The same goes for Locals Only and Birdy’s.
Places like the Emerson and the Murat are fine all-ages venues … if the band is huge (by punk standards) and can draw a crowd of at least 500. The Underground in the basement of the Harrison Center for the Arts was a wonderful, small, all-ages venue, but like all good things, it came to an end.
For small touring bands and local bands there is no real alternative for shows other than basements. What makes the basement scene so great is that anyone can turn his or her domicile into a venue. For noisy punk and hardcore, thick, windowless foundation walls help keep the music confined to the basement before it can travel to the ears of a grumpy neighbor or, worse, a bored cop. While everyone can potentially host one of these subterranean spectacles, a few houses in the city have stepped up to become anchors in the scene.
In the nether regions of Broad Ripple there is a house simply referred to as “The Fifteen Eleven.” For the past year and a half, Pat Dow has been booking shows in his humble house.
“We host mainly hardcore and indie shows,” Dow says. “We’ve had Reign Supreme, Pompeii, Cancer Bats, Haymarket Riot and Mt. St. Helens all play here.”
Luckily for Pat, he’s not alone when it comes to booking and promoting these shows. “A lot of other people promote and book the shows here. We charge around $50 to keep up utilities and as insurance in case anything’s broken. But the first priority is getting the touring bands paid.”
At the Cancer Bats show in early April, the front porch was overflowing with black T-shirts and mesh shorts in between acts. Roughly 50 people were in attendance to see the Cancer Bats, a Canadian hardcore/metal band.
“It’s all through word-of-mouth and Internet promotion,” Dow says. “The hardcore scene is definitely one of the biggest scenes in the city. Web sites like MySpace and the IndyHardcore message boards spread the word for us. That’s why people come from all over for shows.”
Dow has a unique perspective on the local music industry because he sees it from all points of view. He is a promoter, musician and operates a venue, so he has the insight to be as fair as possible to all parties involved. As for his own band, Sex Before Marriage, “We try not to play too many shows at the house. Maybe we’ll play one-fifth of the shows there.”
Not far from The 1511 lies the Halloween House. Only the tacky Halloween lights perpetually hanging from the porch mark the quaint bungalow on Winthrop Avenue.
“Our first show was on Sept. 26,” said Pat Tokyo, the mastermind behind the Halloween House. “It was The Leftovers from Portland, Maine, Flamingo Nosebleed and Black Mambas.”
“And Highway Magic,” chimed in Kate Tokyo, the girlfriend and co-conspirator of Mr. Tokyo.
The two have been a major force in the local basement scene in the past year. By utilizing the Pop Punk Bored (a national message board for pop-fans), the couple has been able to attract top-notch bands and pull impressive crowds.
Last February, in collaboration with Circle City Ska, the Halloween House hosted popular pop punk act The Copyrights. Without any local acts in support, there was concern that the show would be poorly attended. Luckily, Tokyo spread word of the show via the Pop Punk Bored and Copyrights fans from all over the Midwest flocked to the show. The show was such a hit that The Copyrights scheduled another show in April and yet another in July.
Word of the Halloween House spread quickly amongst the regional pop-punk community. “After the Leftovers and Copyrights shows, I’ve been getting tons of requests from bands to play here,” Tokyo said. “I’m getting so many requests that I can’t possibly book all these shows.” What a beautiful predicament indeed!
In the up-scale Lockerbie Square area, there stands a shining beacon of the basement scene. The Ska House, on Fulton Street, despite its small size, has hosted some spectacular shows.
Courtney Boone, the most active member of the Ska House team, sees hosting basement shows as an interesting way of socialization. “You get to see great bands from all over the country,” Boone said, “and meet a lot of cool people and make new friends.”
The Ska House has hosted a wide variety of bands, including Fake Problems, The Fad and The Green Room Rockers, but, as the name implies, is partial to ska and punk music.
“Ska is just fun to listen to and fun to dance to,” Boone said. “I love ska!”
Measuring at roughly 15-feet-by-15-feet, The Ska House basement is one of the smaller basement venues in the city. But to many, the small size is a boon. “The basement is personal,” Boone stated. “The interaction between the crowd and the bands is unlike any other musical setting.”
This March, Toronto ska-punk act The Flatliners stopped by The Ska House for a sweaty show on their day off from the NOFX tour.
“Punk rock is all about the live show,” front man Chris Cresswell said. “The albums and everything else are just secondary to the live show and there’s no better proving ground than a basement.”
As Cresswell stated, the basement is the ultimate proving ground for punk rock, and music in general. There are no stages and no house lights. There is nothing separating crowd from band. There is no chance for shy musicians to hide from clamorous fans. Anything less than 100 percent effort will be detected and rejected. The band is forced to interact with the fans on a level that is unreachable in an arena or even a bar.
These houses, sacrificed in the name of music, exist to serve the community in a very intimate way. Though they lack neon lights and marquees, they are begging to be stumbled upon and explored. Forget about any spooky preconceptions once held about underground spaces, and venture into the basement.
Home Field Advantage Concert 2008-2009 Series
(Indianapolis, in the Nora neighborhood)
This singer/songwriter series features “home grown” musical talent with a touch of poetry tossed in.
September: The Goldmine Pickers
October: Tim Grimm
November: Jason Wilber
December: Otis Gibbs
The rest of the season will include Cliff Snyder, Greg Ziesemer, Kriss Luckett and poet Norbert Krapf.
E-mail Cary Alan Fields, email@example.com, for more information and to be added to the mailing list.
Free Range Concerts
Newlyweds Bill and Kim Stagg “love what music adds to their lives,” and want to support the growing local music scene. They named the series Free Range “because they give artists plenty of room to stretch and introduce audiences to original material.”
July 13: Gordon Bonham and Jes Richmond
August: The Paul Holdman Trio
For more information and to be included on the mailing list, e-mail FreeRangeConcert@aol.com.
Indy Hostel House Concert Series
(Indianapolis, in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood)
The Indy Hostel features both touring and local singer-songwriters in a warm living room surrounded by original art.
May 31: Eddy Burke
June 6: Garrison Starr and Rachel Sage
June 14: Oliver Buck
June 19: Dean Phelps and Jason Hathaway
June 21: Nathaniel Seer
July 7: Lynsey Smith
July 22: Roy Davis
For more information, go to www.indyhostel.us, and to be included on the mailing list, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kessler House Concert Series
The Kessler House Concert Series is designed to be a celebration of great music experienced with the musical guests in the warm and intimate setting.
Aug. 2: Cloigheann
Visit www.kesslerhouseconcerts.com for more information or e-mail email@example.com for more details.
Indy Folk Series
The Indy Folk Series just wrapped up their seventh year. The series features national and local musicians in a coffeehouse setting. Their next season will start in September. Check their Web site for more information and to join the mailing list: www.indyfolkseries.org.
The Indy Indie series features women singer-songwriters of all genres. They host concerts in theaters, club houses and an annual outdoor festival.
June 13: Pre-Pride kickoff — Indy Indie does Talbott
Their Web site, www.indyindie.com, is chock-full of information.
Other great source for concert schedules and information: