photo courtesy Marc Skirvin

Brown County
House Concerts

~by Jeff Tryon

A flurry of house concert events last year have whetted appetites and energized local music lovers to create a series of live music events offering original music.

Hondo Thompson is a volunteer DJ for the WFHB community radio station in Bloomington who frequents the music scene. After moving to the western edge of Brown County last summer, he plunged into the house concert idea.

“I built a deck on the back of my house, and what drove me was the closing of Muddy Boots and the Pine Room,” he said. “It was a place that had music seven days a week. It might be open mic, most of the time it was local bands, and every now and then they’d get some band from out of town. A lot of really cool things were happening.”

He said the Pine Room music scene and the local house concert movement both have roots in an earlier, similar situation—Otis Todd’s garage jam, a weekly picker-fest where old time accomplished players and young up-and-comers met to swap tunes, share licks, and learn their craft.

“You’d get some of the pickers like Barry Elkins and people who had been around Uncle Otis getting together with some of the young guys,” Thompson said. “That’s where the Indiana Boys came from; Richard Gist, Kenan Rainwater, and Joe Bolinger played there. You had guys from the White Lightning Boys playing old bluegrass.”

A house concert is a musical performance presented in someone’s home or yard, barn or rec room. Typically, there is a suggested donation or sometimes a set admission fee. The money usually goes to the performers or some pre-designated cause. Refreshments are usually pitch-in or provided by the host.

The idea has been growing nationwide as a way of bringing regional and national acts to less visited places and helping them to bridge gaps in their travelling schedule, according to local singer-songwriter Jason Blankenship.

“If you’re playing a weekend in Detroit, and the next weekend in Chicago, it helps if you can fill in with a couple of house concerts during the week,” he said. “There are house concert associations that you can join online. If you want to host concerts, they hook you up with artists that are coming through the area.”

Performers love house concerts because the focus is on the music. Thompson said they are the antidote for musicians seen as “wallpaper”—getting stuck over in a corner to compete with pool tables or a televised ball game.

“One of the things we stress is, we’re here to watch the band,” Hondo said. “We’re here to create an audience, not to use these guys as background music.”

Brown County singer-songwriter Frank Jones said the house concert is also a great outlet for people who don’t normally play out, and provides a different, more attentive, audience.

“On the one hand, you have the partying bar scene, and they listen to you if you play something that’s familiar or that they happen to like,” he said. “The other is an actual listening room setup that is so much more conducive to people being able to go out and play whatever they want. And it’s always a polite audience.”

Local singer-songwriter Kenan Rainwater is embracing the house concert concept and taking it to the next level, technologically, with a broad view of the possibilities.

“It’s a beautiful concept and it creates a nice environment for the musicians to play in,” Rainwater said. “When you’re at a house concert, probably the best part of it is the personal interaction, the intimacy, and the attention. You don’t need amplification when the audience is there to listen.”

For the past year, Rainwater has been hacking his way through the jungle of online electronics, teaching himself how to put house concerts online live.

“I have massive dreams for the house concert, live stream model,” he said. “I’d like to combine the intimate live performance of a house concert for a small studio audience with broadcasting it all over the world via the internet, and now, a YouTube station.”

From an improvised home studio, Rainwater has been streaming his own house concerts while learning the software and hardware to run multiple camera angles and produce good live sound using a soundboard combined with room microphones.

“You really want to appeal to music lovers who want a unique experience that they are not going to find at any bar in the country where they are playing the hits from yesterday and today,” Rainwater said.

Blankenship said he’s not sure if a local-only house concert is a sustainable idea. He favors hooking into a national house concert association.

“If we can get a good mix of travelling and local artists, I think that’s a win-win for everybody,” Blankenship said. “I think there’s some real potential to make a name for Brown County. We just have to get a few heads together and figure out what would be the best way to go at it.”

Thompson said he’s encountered several people who were interested in hosting a house concert.

“I would love to see this turn into a co-op situation where you get five people, five groups doing this, and saying we’ll do this once a month, or once every fifth or sixth weekend,” he said. “It could become a very cool thing for Brown County. You’re welcome to tell anybody who’s interested in something like that to contact me (through the WFHB radio station).”