Denver singer-songwriter John Common loves to play music. He loves to perform in venues big and small. In fact, he threw house concerts when he released his most recent EP.
And then the pandemic hit, and he was confined to his home. He wanted to keep playing, but filling his house with people seemed problematic. So, too, was the lack of entertainment options. "How much Netflix can one person take?" he ponders.
Solution: yard shows.
“I just started turning my front porch into a venue and started the last several Saturdays, just playing music and inviting people out on our front lawn,” he says. “What I’m seeing is that people are starved for live music.”
He also sees an opportunity amid the misery and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic.
“House concerts or yard concerts are kind of tearing down some of the walls between ‘Oh, only certain kinds of people go to see certain kinds of music, and only certain kinds of people go to those venues versus other venues.' I think people are like, ‘Fuck it, man. I want live music in my life. I miss music. I miss art. I want to connect with people.’”
For a good house or yard concert, all you really need is a place to play and “at least a handful of people or more who give a shit,” he says.
“We went out on our porch with the same public address system we use to practice and just turned the speakers to the front yard,” he says. “We set up exactly like we were doing a rehearsal. Maybe this was bad of me, but I didn’t even ask permission. But I looked out, and there were twenty people around.”
Impromptu jams aside, Common says that if you're planning an inside show, it’s important to limit the number of people to what's currently allowed by the state, particularly if you're promoting the show on social media. You should also provide hand sanitizer and wipes, and a clean bathroom to make sure people feel safe. It’s also not a bad idea to set up an outdoor area where people can get some fresh air between sets.
It's worth the time and investment to create the correct setup.
“I wish it wasn’t true,” he says, “but we are probably in this for another year, at least.”
After going without gigs for several weeks, singer-songwriter Sarah Christine has been making money writing personal songs for people and playing private, “COVID appropriate” house shows. She loves those private house concerts because of the relationships that can be forged through them.
“At a time when there’s no live music, you are giving people something they can’t get anywhere else,” she says. “It’s pretty reasonable. People pitch in and stuff. Half the time it’s cheaper than dinner out.”
Christine, who recently released her second album, notes that house shows are an intimate affair, so it’s important that the musician and homeowners work closely together to ensure a good experience. She likes to come by the space a week before the show to check out the digs. She also says the host should let the neighbors know about the show ahead of time.
“You have to know the people, know the home and know the audience that is coming,” Christine says. “Is it inside or is it in the back yard or in someone’s basement or by a fireplace? How can you set up a stage that is unique to their home and the audience?”
Christine likes to have her gear set up before people start arriving. She has seen houses where homeowners have their own PA, but it’s more likely that the performer has to bring her own and make sure it’s appropriate for the space.
“I think what a lot of people forget is that you just bring the same equipment you think is going to perform like it will on stage, and you blow everyone’s ears out,” she explains. “You’ve really got to focus on that.”
Jordan Brandenburg, mandolin player for Denver bluegrass outfit Turkeyfoot, says it’s important to have a clear expectation of what a show will be. A show where the band is expected to provide background music while people mingle and chat is entirely different from a show where the band is the main attraction.
Turkeyfoot fiddle player Bridger Dunnagan says that it's also important to make expectations clear to the audience. A friend who throws house shows gives attendees an explicit directive to pipe down during the performance and also to buy a T-shirt or make a donation to the band; laying out the rules helps everyone have a good time, he explains.
"She says that lovingly but firmly," he notes of his friend. “It’s a different kind of thing that people aren’t used to, right? You kind of have to hold people’s hand for that. And she does that, so everyone is on the same page.”
Both bandmembers say that they aren't encouraging anyone to throw house shows during the coronavirus pandemic, but they hope to see some opportunities in the near future. And they've heard of others who are putting on successful shows now.
A house show doesn’t have to feature only musicians. Organizers can invite painters or other visual artists to exhibit their work. A chef can make food, or a comedian can do a standup set. The host can serve local beer or have people bring their own. The show is really a way to bring out a variety of creative folks who can display their skills in a venue that's more personal than a virtual screen.
While some people who throw house concerts charge admission, Common says they shouldn’t plan to get rich off the show. That misses the point of creating a shared experience. Personally, he likes the idea of collecting suggested donations and giving them to charity.
“Imagine if everyone did a suggested donation and then you took all that money and put it toward Black Lives Matter, or Campaign Zero for police reform,” he suggests. “What if one or both of the artists are people of color or there is a spoken-word thing about social justice? We could make these house concerts be more and more meaningful.”