Live music in the parlor – Memphis House Concerts making artists feel right at home

A couple of months ago, air still abuzz with the sound of cicadas, a crowd of nearly 70 strangers gathered at the “Lattimore Amphitheater & Beer Hall,” which to the unaware might have looked suspiciously like a quiet home in Midtown.

They entered through a wooden fence onto a narrow rectangle of grass, about as deep as a bowling alley and four lanes wide. A small stage with speakers was arranged on one end of the yard under a tree, with folding chairs in rows on the lawn.

The host, Jim Lattimore, collected the requisite donations from his guests, then went to the stage to inform people about the beer keg in the kitchen. “Please help keep Lucy inside,” he says, referring to his excitable dog.

By the light of tiki torches, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Clare Burson stepped up to the microphone with her guitar, swatted a mosquito off her hand and played two sets of original material accompanied by the sounds of Midtown: airplanes flying overhead, crickets chirping, night birds cooing. Her audience was rapt and respectful.

Scenes such as this on have become more familiar as music lovers — tired of smokey bars, late start times, bad acoustics and lackluster attendance — transform their homes

into concert venues.

Lattimore is one of Memphis’ best-known purveyors of the modern house concert, an intimate gathering for music aficionados or, as some have described them, the equivalent of a musical Tupperware party.

“We started doing this quite by accident,” Lattimore said, recalling the time he and his co-producer Susan Payne had gone to see a singer they’d heard about, Peter Bradley Adams, at the Hi-Tone Cafe on Poplar.

“Here’s a guy who had performed on Conan O’Brien singing to eight people. We felt a little embarrassed for him and for Memphis. We went up to him afterward and asked if he’d come play a concert in our house. We figured he’d say no, but a few months later, he was in our living room.”

Lattimore is director of investment banking at Thompson Dunavant, treasurer of the Memphis Music Foundation and an amateur songwriter. He already had sound equipment at his home.

After a successful start, he and Payne founded Memphis House Concerts in 2006, a concert series he promotes through a MySpace page and by word of mouth.

He generally tries to invite folk or Americana artists who have national reputations. His living room is already booked through August 2008 with about one concert per month. Upcoming artists include Tom Kimmel (Dec. 8), whose songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash and Joe Cocker among others, and Jeff Black (Feb. 23), a blue-collar balladeer who has been heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

“It’s really become almost a second full-time job,” Lattimore said. “The musicians leave talking about how much fun it was. They’re out evangelizing for us now. I’d say we get 10 to 15 solicitations a week from artists wanting to play our house.”

Like house concerts across the country, the gig allows musicians — usually the solo acoustic type — to play original music on a small group of attentive and respectful listeners.

House rules dictate no talking during the music. And no requests for “Freebird.”

Though private concerts have a reputation for being elite entertainment (sure, Willie Nelson will play your rumpus room if the price is right), within the last few years regular folks have greatly increased the number of jobs for traveling troubadours.

Lattimore has a fairly typical arrangement. He’ll contact the artist’s management and offer to host a concert. He provides the venue, the sound system, hors d’oeuvres, drinks. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he says.

Some artists request a guaranteed minimum fee. Since Lattimore has a reputation for good attendance — between 30 and 90 people per concert, paying $10 to $15 per person — his artists keep all the money collected at the door. They also sell compact discs directly to the audience. For many musicians, the $300 to $1,000 they make is competitive with what some clubs pay.

Hosts often put artists up for a night or two and provide meals, meaning performers save even more money.

Lattimore also makes live recordings of his concerts and podcasts them on the Web site.

Fran Snyder, founder of the Web site Concerts In Your Home (concertsinyour home.com), began promoting house concerts two years ago as a way to help artists find gigs.

“Finding listening rooms for acoustic acts has been a struggle lately,” said Snyder, a Kansas-based musician who now plays numerous private homes each year. “Bars try to be something to everyone. There are pool tables, televisions, people talking, all kinds of distractions. Music is relegated to a background thing. A lot of talented artists get stuck playing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ over and over because that’s the only way to make a career.”

Snyder’s site offers tips on hosting house concerts, along with a list of musicians eager to perform them.

More than 200 places that host musicians are listed. California has the most venues, while Tennessee is ninth, with eight hosts scattered across the state, including Knoxville, Lebanon and Collierville. Most concerts, however, are unpublicized.

“It allows music fans to become concert promoters,” Snyder said. “They do it for purely altruistic reasons. As an artist, it’s great because the crowd is very close to you. You see the tears in their eyes.”

The tradition of in-home concerts dates back centuries to music clubs gathering in parlors to listen to chamber music.

The Memphis Chamber Music Society, producing nine concerts each year, continues its Sunday afternoon tradition. The homes, often historic and well-appointed, are as much a part of the allure as the music.

This season’s first concert was held in a mansion on Walnut Grove, a replica of a Tudor country manor in Bath, England.

While the Memphis Chamber Music Society is a registered nonprofit organization with sponsors and subscriptions, most contemporary house concerts are less formal arrangements.

Louis Meyers, executive director of the Memphis-based Folk Alliance, says that house concerts are increasing nationally, though it’s hard to know how many there are.

“Most people putting them on want to stay under the radar,” Meyers said. “They don’t want to treat it like a business and have to deal with the IRS. We know it’s growing because of who’s shopping for acts at our (Folk Alliance) conventions. These are not professional promoters. During the week they are doctors, lawyers and accountants. On the weekend they are Bill Graham (the famous rock promoter).”

For East Memphian Dr. Nancy Chase, a pediatric cardiologist, becoming a regular house concert host was an extension of her love of music.

“I’ve always had music in my home, but I guess you could say it started when I was asked to host a concert for the Memphis Acoustic Music Association,” she said. “Then I had (British singer-songwriter and entertainer) Pete Morton. After that, I was hooked.”

She now puts on between two and six concerts a year. Tonight, she’s hosting an Irish musician, Gerry O’Beirne, in her living room, which seats up to 55 people comfortably.

Like others, she requests an R.S.V.P. from people on her mailing list.

Her advice to future hosts:

“It helps to have an audience that’s appreciative of music,” Chase said. “When people bring friends, I ask them to check to make sure they are music appreciators. Only once did I have people poking around where they shouldn’t have. The artist went up to them and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ “

One Response to “Live music in the parlor – Memphis House Concerts making artists feel right at home”

  1. Check out
    http://www.AllMemphisMusic.com

    Love that station

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: