Standing in a grimy, smoke-filled basement somewhere in Bloomington, Indiana, on Labor Day weekend in 1997, bookended by a water heater and a weeping couple (emo was embarrassingly literal in those days), my buddy Guv and I watched Mineral and the Get Up Kids completely level the place with brilliant back-to-back sets. People were stacked on top of each other like Jenga blocks, and the music was louder than hell. It was messy but magical, as house shows often tend to be.
The scene is dramatically different this Friday evening in mid-September as Sweetie and I pull up in front of Dwight Mark's house on Hazel Court in northwest Denver. For some reason, I was expecting to find a typical house party, with lines of cars outside a home bustling with activity. Instead, there's plenty of parking -- and nothing at all seems to be happening inside the house. This has got to be it, I assure Sweetie, who's noticeably hesitant to walk through the wide-open front door, fearing that we might be disturbing some unsuspecting family in their living room.
Once inside, though, we're greeted warmly by Mark, who hosts the popular Highlands House Concert Series. Pointing out a bowl with green pipe cleaners sitting on an end table in the foyer, he urges us to grab a pair and mark our seats in the living room, which doubles as the performance area. The space is filled with rows of neatly arranged folding chairs in front of a tiny wooden stage that contains a P.A. and a stool, leaving just enough room for tonight's performer, Chicago slide-guitar maestro Kraig Kenning. The stage is framed by a silver radiator and a picture window with a large rug draped over it, presumably to muffle the sound. On the mantle above the fireplace, Mark has clamped a pole with a pair of lights for effect. The space looks so pro that it's easy to forget you're in somebody's house.
But Mark assures me that creating this performance-ready atmosphere took a bit of work. After performing with Bob Tyler and Celeste Krenz at a series of house shows in the Boulder area, he started looking for a house where he could put on concerts of his own. "I thought it was a great idea," he recalls, "but I never had a house that could fit it; it was always just too small. So a year ago I decided to move, and then I bought this house and knocked a wall out so I could fit at least forty people. I made an offer on the Victorian theater, but they wanted to keep it for plays. It would've been a dream, but it didn't work out."
Though he lost out on that space, Mark has clearly found his niche in this quiet Highland neighborhood. Folks are chatting in the kitchen as they pick through the hors d'oeuvre he's laid out; other people mingle over glasses of wine on the back lawn. Mark makes his way around the house and introduces himself to the guests he doesn't recognize, making sure everyone is comfortable. The scene feels more like a dinner party than a concert -- which is exactly the vibe Mark set out to create when he started promoting his series last year.
"For me, it's more of a community thing," he stresses. "I feel like I'm giving an option to people who wouldn't normally go out to hear some of the music that they really want to hear. I have some elderly folks that usually come. It's just so easy, and they get to meet other neighbors."
Ironically, none of his immediate neighbors have attended -- although they've all been invited. Then again, none of them have voiced any complaints, which is particularly noteworthy since all of Mark's shows are amplified. "Most of the people on my street have garages," he notes, "so parking's not an issue. And the concerts are so quiet, I don't think they're louder than anybody watching a movie. You really don't hear it outside. Fortunately, it's an old double-bricked house."
He's right. When I step outside midway through Kenning's first set -- which is stunning and features the most chilling rendition of "Amazing Grace" I've ever heard -- it's just as quiet outside as when we arrived. You can even hear crickets chirping.
The scene is so laid-back, you could almost overlook how much work Mark puts into it. From booking the artists to picking them up at the airport to housing them to making sure that people attend the shows and kick in the suggested donation ($15), Mark has his hands full. It's a labor of love -- with an emphasis on the labor part. "Most of the stress comes from trying to ensure that I can fill the house and pay the musicians," he says. "That's key to me. I want this to be beneficial to every guest who comes here and every musician who comes through. I really want to make sure that I can guarantee a full house for these musicians. That's the biggest challenge for me. If I can't guarantee these people that they're going to get paid and get a good audience that's going to be listening, then I'll probably have to quit. Because I'm a musician myself. I know the shoes they're in."
But as a player, Mark also gets a kick out of hanging with the artists and performing with them from time to time. "On one hand, it's a lot of work," he admits. "On the other, I'm totally spoiled. Usually I'll pick a song or two of the artists' that I get to play with them. From that perspective, I'm completely spoiled. It's just a thrill to get to spend some time with them before the show. A lot of these musicians are traveling musicians, and they'll spend the night. I drive them around and feed them food. I get to know them. So in that respect, I'm completely spoiled."
And so, he hopes, are the acts that perform. "I think the artist can be more intimate with their audience," he explains. "The singer-songwriters can share the stories of the songs they wrote." Although Mark only intended to do six shows a year, he's already put on eight, with the next one set for October 14 and featuring the Boulder Acoustic Society. With the exception of Kenning and John Magnie -- two of Mark's personal faves -- most acts don't perform more than once.
"I shouldn't be saying these things," he says, "because I don't want to disappoint other musicians, but Kraig Kenning and John Magnie, without question, are the most amazing concerts I've had in my house. I mean, I have memories that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."
I know the feeling.