Bringing the music home
At some local shows, there’s no beer for sale. There’s no stage. There are no intricate lights or extravagant sound systems.
In fact, some shows take place in dining rooms and kitchens. Some of them even take place in bathrooms.
These are the characteristics of a house show, and in a scene saturated with clubs and venues, local music lovers are bringing the noise into their own living rooms with increasing volume.
It’s an alien concept for some, but for Craig Powell at The Layabout in Durham, hosting shows in his home was a natural extension of his love for live music.
“I’ve always worked around music and in the music industry in varying capacities in my adult life, so it was kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “House shows have consistently been among the most fun shows that I’ve been to.”
For other house show organizers, the impetus stems from a desire for informality that established venues can’t provide.
Jon O’Neill of Carrboro’s The African Queen began hosting house shows when he and his housemates found that booking live shows often proved difficult for inexperienced bands.
“At that point it was inconceivable to us that the Nightlight would have us play or anything like that,” he said. “We decided to have shows here as often as we could, and thought that would be a good way for us to play for people, which we love doing.”
As an environment in which cover charges and limitations are minimal, house shows also serve as an ideal opportunity to experiment and perform music that strays from convention. There are no rules about who can play, which allows house show hosts to curate any acts they choose.
Ryan Martin of Meadows of Dan, another Carrboro resident who has been booking house shows since 2007, capitalizes on this freedom.
“I feel like dance music and any kind of out-there music speak to my viscera,” he said. “I’m most excited to see those things live. I’m one of the only people who set up shows like that, so that’s kind of a niche for me.”
Powell also uses his role as a house show host to book artists that might be overlooked.
“That’s always great when I can make that happen for a band that I think really deserves to be able to play in the area that’s having some trouble,” Powell said.
And while house shows are primed for intimacy, experimentation and informality, their off-the-grid status comes with additional challenges.
“It’s really hard to get people to come to shows if they don’t know somebody who’s performing or have some sort of idea of what it’s going to be about,” O’Neill said. “It’s both really exhilarating and really frustrating to look around a room at a performance and realize that 90 percent of the people there are also people who perform regularly, and have it be people performing for other performers.”
A similar crowd frequents Martin’s shows.
“I’d like to see more faces, but usually it’s a neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of WXYC DJ’s, a lot of college students who want to see something a little different.”
Though he’s aware of potential deterrents, Powell hopes that area music lovers won’t let a fear of the unknown keep them away from shows.
“I can understand that there’s a certain intimidation factor, coming to a house for the first time where you don’t necessarily know anybody,” he said.
“I’m telling everyone that’s reading this — don’t let that scare you off. I think that most of the time there’s a very good contingency of people that I don’t know, but I love that.”
Advertising poses another challenge for house show organizers. While established, non-residential venues often use show profits to publicize lineups, financial and legal constraints often limit bands and house show organizers from spreading the word to the rest of the community.
Word of mouth and social networking comprise the bulk of the resources on which local house venues rely.
“I make flyers and I hang those locally, at friendly businesses, locally-owned establishments,” said Powell.
As students graduate and the music scene shifts, the impermanence of some house shows — whether it’s the acts they feature or the people who live there — remains a constant reality.
“I think this place is so transient that there are sort of different vibes, because people will come in every couple of years,” Martin said.
Max Berry of The African Queen shared similar feelings.
“The African Queen as a place is ephemeral. That’s just us, that’s us here. I’d much rather have the satisfaction of knowing that 10 years down the road, the same things that were happening 10 years before were happening again,” he said.
At the end of the day, even the most disparate house show venues share common ground.
For The African Queen, Meadows of Dan and The Layabout, the opportunity to meet other music fans in a casual atmosphere is one of the most winsome attributes of hosting shows.
“I love it when I get to meet people at these things,” said Powell.
“Especially if they tell me that they’re having a good time, and I think most of the time people enjoy themselves here. That’s what it’s all about.”
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