Listening #82

It's a guy thing, dating from those sandbox days when such declarations were not only socially acceptable but expected of us: Mickey Mantle could run the bases faster than Whitey Ford, the Chevrolet Corvette was cooler than the Ford Mustang, Jimmy Page played faster than Jeff Beck, Superman was stronger than Batman. (Women, those devious serpent-hearkeners of Old Testament fame, are for once blameless: They never argue that Charlotte Bronte wrote better tea-drinking scenes than Jane Austen, or that Hugh Grant looks better in a powdered wig than Daniel Day Lewis.)

Consequently, there are always a few guys who want to know: Who has the best home music system in the world? Is it a celebrity audiophile such as Steve Jobs, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Marlo Thomas? Perhaps the best system belongs to a well-known manufacturer: a Dave Wilson or a Ken Shindo or an Ivor Tiefenbrun? Or could it be that the best system in the world is owned—or at least borrowed for a very long time—by someone in the reviewing community?

For once in my life, I know the answer to my own stupid question: It's me. The best domestic music system I've ever heard was right here, in my living room. Tough titties, Marlo.

Chest beating
In June of this year I accomplished that to which so many audio hobbyists aspire: I transformed my living room into a concert hall. I did it not with larger speakers or more powerful amplifiers or better-quality cable risers, but by bringing a world-class musician into my home and inviting some friends and acquaintances to come and hear him. My family and I have now hosted our first house concert.

The idea of a house concert—I hesitate to call it a movement, if only because the word suggests that this is something new—crossed my attention a few years ago, while I was visiting the website of one of my favorite string-instrument players. Scanning his calendar page, hoping to learn of an upcoming appearance within easy driving distance, I saw a number of listings for "solo house concerts" sprinkled among the festival, club, and music-hall dates. I poked around and discovered that these were generally hosted by people who are personally acquainted with the artist, and whose homes are large and comfortable enough to accommodate performer and audience alike.

The idea, of course, is for host and artist to agree on a day and a time when a concert-length performance can be offered before a select audience, and then to arrive at some mutually agreeable fee that might also take into account lodging for a night or two. The price of admission is thus determined by the number of listeners the host feels certain of attracting to the event, and whatever fee the audience members might be presumed to be willing to pay. All proceeds go to the artist, of course, and house-concert etiquette requires that all audience members pay, including the host.

The benefits, to all concerned, are obvious. For listeners, it's a rare chance to see and hear some favorite musicians from literally a few feet away, as well as to meet them and perhaps gain new insights into their art. For performers, it's a chance to make a little extra cash by filling in some blank days on the touring schedule, and to perform for a handpicked audience of real fans.

For listeners and performers alike, the house-concert experience provides a unique opportunity for music without disturbance—from waitresses, busboys, cash registers, pagers, cell phones, or the conversations of drunks or uninterested socialites. More important, there is no crappy sound system: Chances are, no one needs to use a microphone to be heard in your living room.

Here's how it worked for me: As a serious amateur guitar player, I've occasionally sought private lessons from pros in my field (bluegrass) whose touring schedules bring them within a few hours of my home. So it was a couple of years ago, when the world-renowned flatpicker David Grier—thrice named Guitarist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and one of Acoustic Guitar magazine's Artists of the Decade—was scheduled to appear at a club near Woodstock, New York. I got in touch with David through his website, drove downstate to meet him on the day of his performance, and spent a memorable hour in deep study. (We picked fiddle tunes together and swapped prurient jokes.)

We stayed in touch, and in November 2008 my family and I enjoyed David Grier's company during another of his tours of the Northeast. Over dinner, I raised the subject of house concerts; David pronounced our home perfectly suitable for such a thing, and tentative plans were made.

Our house, which is tucked away on a wooded hill overlooking Cherry Valley, New York, was built some 25 years ago as a seasonal home for a family with ties to the village below. And that's exactly what it looks like: a house intended more for entertaining than for anything else. It's neither richly appointed nor built to withstand the ages, but it does have lots of sleeping space, some spectacular views, and a generously sized central living space: a combined living room, dining room, and den that opens onto a kitchen on one side and an elevated deck on the other. That room's 8' ceiling and squarish (21' by 27') floorplan make it less than ideal for use with very large high-end music systems—I use my Quad ESL speakers in a portion of that space, set up for nearfield listening, while my primary system resides in an adjacent room—but it's otherwise a very pleasant gathering place.

My next step was to get in touch with David Dugas, a friend of mine who lives in Atlanta. David is a music enthusiast and a very talented guitarist in his own right—I credit him with helping channel and change my own performing interests, from unfocused strummer to serious flatpicker, back in 1999—and I knew that he and his family had already hosted a number of house concerts, some featuring David Grier. So I asked: How many people would visiting artists expect to play for—and how much money would they expect to be paid?

David Dugas explained that the first concert at his house was held in December 2007, with another flatpicking great: Russ Barenberg, whose 1971 debut album with the band Country Cooking, 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (LP, Rounder 0006), is among the earliest bluegrass recordings in which the acoustic guitar is a featured solo instrument—and whom you've all heard playing "Ashokan Farewell" and other songs on the soundtrack of the Ken Burns film The Civil War. "We talked about doing it for years," Dugas said. "There were a couple of people on my short list, and Russ was always at the top of that list."

Dugas met Barenberg through a mutual friend who manages one of Nashville's finest acoustic-instrument shops, and they worked out the details. "Different artists approach the matter of pay in different ways," he said. "We talked about the money we needed to take in, and Russ had both a total fee and a per-person fee in mind." The numbers suggested by Barenberg were for a combined concert and instructional workshop: a fine opportunity for the working performer to maximize his time, and a rare treat for advanced students who wish to hone their skills.

In the end, Dugas says, "It was a success. We actually had too many people there: We had 15!" The performer earned more than the base amount required to make the trip worth his time, and the host and his family contributed to the local acoustic music scene, memorably if modestly.

Fest greeting
Toward the end of April I assembled an e-mail list of people who seemed likely to be interested: lovers of acoustic music in general (including about a dozen friends whom I knew to be David Grier fans); other amateur and semi-pro musicians; the heads of two nonprofit bluegrass organizations that serve this part of the state; the folks who run New York's annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (which was itself nominated for a special IBMA award last year); and one guy in Albany I scarcely knew, but whom I remembered as having David Grier's autograph on his guitar strap when I met him at a jam last winter. In all there were about 40 potential attendees on my list, some with access to dozens more.

At first I sent them all a teaser: no dollar amounts, no specific dates, just a friendly note wondering how many of them would pay to visit our house in mid-June for a concert, a workshop, or both. The response was encouraging, and it seemed safe to project that as many as two dozen people might attend, as long as we didn't set the price too high. And, to my admitted surprise, the vast majority of the respondents were interested in both a concert and a workshop, even if presented as two separate events on the same day. That sounded good to me.