It was a quiet Monday night in a Fisherman’s Flats home, gray skies turning to light rain as three young women with guitars settled into a borrowed living room, out-of-town musicians playing for a hometown crowd.
Organized by Sierra Dehmler and featuring Lelia Broussard, Lauren Zettler and Allison Weiss, the acoustic low-key gathering brought together youthful friends of Dehmler’s, interested parents and music lovers, and older fans like violinist Ann Coombs and her husband, Gary Kenney, who drove down from San Jose after hearing about the get-together in an e-mail from an East Coast friend.
So it goes in the world of house concerts in Monterey and beyond, quickly rising from the underground to the mainstream.
It’s a way to beat the system, recalling early ’60s venues like Club 57 in Cambridge, where former Carmel Valleyite Joan Baez famously held forth; Folk City in Greenwich Village; or the rent parties of the Roaring Twenties and the Depression, when jazz musicians played for groups of friends in return for passing the hat, chicken and chitlins, and companionable shots of bathtub gin.
Here’s how it works today: An e-mail from the venue gets passed around to friends and fans of various musicians and promoters. If you’re interested, you respond to the organizers, who don’t like to have the phone numbers or addresses of the events passed around, lest nosy neighbors or intrusive authorities get into the act in unwanted ways.
It’s an increasingly viable alternative to the trouble-afflicted club scene. Monterey Live is long gone, much-hyped new club The Whammy Bar perennially announces – then postpones – its opening in the former Doc Ricketts space; and longtime gathering point The Golden State Theatre is under churchified new management.
While boho acts still thrive in venues like the East Village Coffee Lounge, the Alternative Café, Kiki Wow’s Plaza Linda and the wilds of Big Sur, it’s been an increasingly tough go.
The house concert scene offers places where musicians can be heard respectfully, in an atmosphere free of bar fights, bouncers and two drink minimums. They can build audiences, sell CDs, and mix with fans who bring food and beverages and chip in to help pay performers and defray costs.
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But the house concert scene has bigger fish to fry than folk music, sweet as the sounds echoing through the borrowed home in Fisherman’s Flats may be.
They’re keeping it real, but many of the ardent new entrepreneurs are as committed to quality control as an L.A. artists-and-repertoire man in the bad old days – but with better ears for identifying musicians based on talent, not just Top 40 potential.
The two most prominent local hosts are Roost House and Treehouse Concerts, both in Carmel Valley. On the other end of the Peninsula is The Venue, located at the Seaside home of Joe and Auburn Velasquez, where acts like Nashville-based The Waymores make a joyful sound with some regularity.
But these days, it’s the Roost House, sponsored by 32-year-old Carmel surfer Adam Zerbe and his mom, Audrey Morris, that seems to be the red-hot center of a music scene that prides itself on not getting carried away with itself.
“Both Adam Zerbe of Roost House Concerts and myself were interviewed this week by the Monterey County Weekly on the ‘sudden’ appearance of house concerts in the area,” Greg Pool, co-founder, with his wife, Julie, of Treehouse Concerts, notes sardonically on his blog. “While that may seem new to the Weekly, you and I know we’ve been attending them since 2003 at our house in Pacific Grove and now in Carmel Valley Village.”
Whether or not the media is late to the party, the performances taking place at Treehouse and Roost House are well worth the hype, even if they’re flying largely under the radar of mainstream (or alternative) press.
Sparrows Gate, a critically-acclaimed San Luis Obispo-based band whose music is “cut from the same cord of John Steinbeck’s desolate Western landscape,” according to their website, play Roost House this Thursday, May 27, with Mikey Silbecky, a self-described “dirty-haired dirty-fingered” folkie. Past performers have included folk-blues legend Nina Gerber and fellow Carmelite Walter Rose, who plays again June 19 with Jon Swift, an alt-country crooner who writes of “lost love, hard times and the beauty that lies between.”
Zerbe produced Rose’s first EP as part of his side venture, 4th Street Records, under the aural auspices of Gary Souza’s Reel to Reel Studios in Sand City. The label is also releasing an EP by Monterey musician Gabriel Ganzjuk, with more in the works from Carmel Valley singer/songwriter Mark David Roth and L.A.-based roots/Americana band Cave Country.
“We now have a spot to host traveling songwriters and bands that would normally just stop in Santa Cruz and then continue south to Los Angeles without giving Carmel or Monterey much thought as a stop on their tour,” says Zerbe, who quickly adds: “Remember, house concerts are not a business! They are not-for-profit private parties.”
Pool, whose day job is working in web services at CSUMB, says Treehouse was in Pacific Grove from 2003-2007 before moving to Carmel Valley. The house was in a very forested area – hence the moniker.
“I wanted to go a step above the open-mic artist and get that nationally touring artist that wouldn’t be able to book shows at Moe’s Alley or Don Quixote’s because no one knows who they are,” he says. “They realize the advantages to doing a house concert rather than playing a traditional venue. In most cases, they’re making a lot more money.”
Pool was concerned that his concerts would struggle after Monterey Live opened in 2005, but many musicians still chose to play Treehouse over the former Alvarado Street spot.
“When artists play a traditional venue, they’re taking more of a chance,”’ he says. “Even with 21st-century marketing tools, you’re not necessarily going to get a crowd. The folks coming out to our shows trust that they’re going to have a good time, there will be enough seats, and the music is going to be good. I’d probably have to drive to Santa Cruz to see most of the musicians we have.”
In traditional venues, artists may get some of the money at the door, but they also often have to pay the sound guy and pony up a 5 to 10 percent cut of CD sales.
“I’m not a business, so artists get 100 percent of the door and can sell as much as they want without giving the venue a cut,” Pool says. “At a club, artists aren’t going to hang around, interact with the audience and eat a potluck meal.”
He says Treehouse’s most memorable concert was in 2004, when veteran roots artist Mark Erelli performed. At the break, Pool proposed to Julie without anyone knowing but Erelli, who ended up playing “Before I Knew Your Name,” the perfect song for the moment. Pool recalls one musician who played to a sellout crowd at Treehouse, then appeared at Monterey Live the following night to play for only five patrons.
“What that tells me is that it wasn’t just the artist – it was that people wanted to be at my house and enjoy themselves,” he says. “You don’t have to pay exorbitant prices at the bar or park downtown. I can book naked harmonica Hungarian music, and it would be great, because people love coming to our place.”
It may be less high-end than the gatherings at Zerbe and Pool’s places, but Joe Velasquez’s The Venue, on Hamilton Street in Seaside, is the scene of some of the funkiest and most creative sounds in the county.
Velasquez grew up listening to bluegrass at his brother’s home, in the Oak Grove neighborhood near Lake El Estero in the ’70s.
The high-spirited entrepreneur recently hosted a private party for the aforementioned Waymores, whose band members have written for Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Ray Charles and Linda Ronstadt.
The private concerts are promoted online, with guests asked to donate $12-$15 and bring a potluck dish. Seating is limited to 80.
Velasquez started with a house concert featuring his son, Joseph Velasquez, a saxophonist and vocalist who won aMonterey Jazz Festival student musician contest in 2000. It was a benefit for a local autistic youth who needed further medical help at Stanford
Joe Sr. has been involved in the MJF and Monterey Bay Blues Festival, which encouraged his involvement in the house concerts.
The Venue is an intimate experience where people can listen to great live music, make new friends, eat potluck dinners and meet artists, Velasquez says.
But the theme of excitement about the burgeoning house concert scene is the same no matter who you talk to – enthusiasm, appreciation of the quality of the acts and the listening environments, and a sense of protectiveness about the privacy of the people who are making this kind of event possible.
Everyone wants to make sure that this is one good deed that does not go punished.
“The Roost House vibe is great – it’s a wonderful thing he’s got going,” says Souza of Reel To Reel Studios, a musician who played bass with the post-Janis Joplin reconstituted Big Brother & The Holding Company. “It’s a big barn, with high open ceilings, and two speakers that are placed just right above an open stage.
“They’ve had bass and drums, but I’ve never heard anything electric there,” he adds, before anxiously checking in: “Is Adam OK with your writing about this?”
Mark David Roth, a Monterey-based singer-songwriter who attended Carmel High with Zerbe and has performed at Roost House, says the environment affords performers “the chance to tone it down a little bit,” creating a more intimate mood for both the acts and the audience.
Other observers agree.
“The future of listening to music is in places like the Roost House,” says veteran Carmel-based music journalist Robert Greenfield (see story, 24), whose singer-songwriter son, Sandy, has appeared there. “It’s like the place where it all began – a coffeehouse feeling where you can actually see people performing, not drinking, smoking and trying to pick people up. It’s not a funky bar, a loud club or a huge arena. There can be a real interaction between artists and audience.
“It proves that there’s hope, even though musicians’ sources of income have changed [because of the pressures of the Internet and the recession],” he adds. “It’s [partly] because we live in an area that doesn’t have that many venues, but it’s an experience that’s almost like being in court in the 1500s, where people would play lutes, mandolins or spinnets. This is the kind of setting where music should be heard and can be appreciated.”
Walter Rose says the Roost House “has the vibe of a family home. When you think of a music venue, you have a sound guy, lighting and a stage, but you’re often dealing with the background noise of the bar and everything else that comes with it.”
The house concert scene amounts to not just a musical movement, but a political statement, an acknowledgement that times may be hard, but that if people stick together, care about the sound and support each other, they can create a better future.
The living room expands into a bigger space in the consciousness of all involved – not just those who are attending, but also those who are tuning in on the Internet, subscribing to the expanding e-mail list of upcoming shows and turning friends on to it, creating a growing circle of fans determined to make it work.
“I attended a house concert in the Bay Area last year that was hosted by my friend Drew Pearce and fell in love with the intimacy of it all,” explains Sierra Dehmler, who has previously held gatherings for visiting musicians Greg Holden, Katie Costello and Ian Axel, and is a musician in her own right.
“With so many artists going the independent route, it’s not easy to make money and stay afloat,” she adds. “House concerts enable musicians to keep every penny they earn and actually make a small profit. It also helps them build networks of fans in markets they don’t play on a regular basis.
“Lots of people bemoan the current state of the music industry, but I think the breakdown we’re seeing now is actually a great thing! Independent artists are recognizing that they can have total control and the ability to promote themselves with a multitude of social networking sites.”
Dehmler says indie musicians are able to take technological skills, and their growing living-room audiences, to help create their own success, on tour and commercially.
“Many are getting their songs on major network televisions hows or placed in prime-time TV spots, all without a label,” she notes. The Internet has given the reins back to the artist. Instead of feeling like they have to be stuck in a major label contract, musicians are recognizing the benefits of a DIY career.
It’s a far cry from the days of the Beatles and the Stones, let alone American Idol, but more and more artists – and audiences – are finding ways to create mutual-support societies, fighting the odds of a tough economy and a changing business model.
The house concert movement is moving from small rooms to a big house, big enough to accommodate the dreams of the great artists who will shape our future, as they have done so often in the past.
At least if Sierra, Greg and Julie, Joe, Auburn and Adam have something to say about it.
Adam Joseph contributed to this story.
Upcoming Local House Concerts:
ROOST HOUSE| 8pm Saturday, June 19. Jon Swift with Walter Rose. Donation: $10-$20, sliding scale. TREEHOUSE | Saturday, July 3. David Ross MacDonald, Australian fingerstyle waif. (Tentative.) RSVP by emailing email@example.com. For more info, check out www.treehouseconcerts.org. THE VENUE | 4pm Sunday, July 18. Thea Hopkins. 685 Hamilton Ave., Seaside. Suggested donation: $12. Bring potlock dish. For info, visit www.thevenue1.blogspot.com, call 236-0220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.