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Backyard Venue

Backyard Venue

J.R. McMillan

Just one final sound check as fans shuffled in. Even with the rain, parking was tight as a few latecomers found their floor seats. No one seemed to mind. It was an exclusive, one-night-only performance from an up-and-coming band and the venue was perfect.
But this wasn’t a sold-out stadium, posh theater production, or small club gig — it was Kelli and Matt’s living room. This was a house show.

Making it as an indie band on the road isn’t easy, or cheap. It can cost a small fortune to break even. Gas and lodging are given, so the only real gain is the gate. The club circuit used to champion emerging acts. Now many are hardly any better than arenas when it comes to their cut.

Imagine the allure of a tour with no bookers, bouncers, barflies, or bullshit getting in the way. That alternative is houses shows — private concerts in the backyards and living rooms of loyal fans who supply the venue and promote the show, often putting up the band overnight.

When Westgate couple Kelli and Matt Blinn decided to open their home to The Rough & Tumble, a Nashville folk duo they barely knew, they weren’t entirely sure what to expect.
“We actually didn’t meet the band until they showed up at our house,” recalled Kelli. “Our mutual friend, who is close with the Rough & Tumble, called in February and said, ‘My friends have this band and they’re doing a house show tour this year. Would you be interested?’.”

Tiny shows are hardly the next new thing. In my youth, my favorite venue was the Birchmere, outside DC in a then tourist-beware section of Alexandria. It was dark and dank. You had to go through the kitchen to get to the bathroom and the whole joint tipped toward a huge floor drain where they presumably washed away the thin film of beer at the end of the night.
But it was acoustically solid in its simplicity, small enough for everyone to sing to the walls. Established acts used it as a warm-up for bigger shows the following evening. Newcomers found new audiences and made enough to make it to the next show down the road. I once saw Taj Mahal play an epic three-hour set there the night before I saw him again at the Warner Theater. Guess which show was better, and cost less than the average cab fare?

The Birchmere still hosts bands, and for a while even weddings and bar mitzvahs. The location and the neighborhood have changed too, as has the whole club circuit. Cover charges are routinely higher than tickets used to be, but the band sees very little of it. Live music used to be the hook; now it’s just the noise. A glorified gastropub with a poorly promoted band in the background is practically as disconnected from the old club scene as many millennials are from terrestrial radio.

That’s why house shows are the next new thing. They connect the band with the audience free from the traditional gatekeepers.

“House shows were something we stepped into almost immediately because of the sense of community they create,” explained Mallory Graham, whose haunting vocals and menagerie of unlikely instruments form half of The Rough & Tumble.
“I think your songs go a lot further than at a bar or coffee shop. There are fewer barriers between you and your audience,” added Scott Tyler, whose voice and guitar complete the group’s traditional, yet contemporary sound.

The two are true troubadours, with a 16-foot camper and a couple of dogs in-tow, their conversation goes back and forth just like their lyrics — catchy and clever, then stirring and soulful, without ever skipping a beat.

“We played our first house show at a friend’s who had previously hosted David Bazan. He was doing this tour where he called out to people and said, ‘I’m done with venues for a while. Does anyone want to open their living room?’ Our friend volunteered. We went and loved it,” recalled Graham. “When we first became a band, we asked if she’d be interested in hosting our first show as well. It was really our debut to our family and friends in Nashville.”

All traveling musicians have cautionary tales. Folk bands just tend to tell them better — like the gig that was straight out of Twin Peaks.
“The moment I saw the missing girl poster I felt a little suspicious,” Graham noted. “Then when the little person and the giant came in? Well, it wasn’t a giant, but a VERY tall person. Then a woman walked in and put a huge log on the bar, and that sealed the deal.”

“It was a hunting lodge about ten miles from the Canadian border in Vermont,” Tyler continued. “We weren’t sure if people were putting us on, or if our buddies knew where we were playing and had hired actors. But it was definitely bizarre.”
There was also that time when a bartender suggested they set up near the pool tables instead of the stage, because the last time an act inadvertently interrupted the nearby card game, the band needed stitches.

“Had we not been double booked with a metal band, I feel like we might have tried to play that gig. After bowing out and dodging a bullet, we became much more intentional about our booking,” Graham admitted. “We gained self-respect that night. That’s more important than a gig at a bar,” Tyler confessed.

The revelation proved pivotal, and house shows became integral to the band’s schedule and strategy. Admittedly, you won’t find many metal bands doing a living room set. Folk music is a genre of personal persuasion, and you can be just as effective playing to one person as an entire room. But that doesn’t diminish the unique opportunities a smaller space affords, or the advent social media makes possible.

“We were playing a show in South Dakota, opening for a band in Brookings. Some people who had seen us there the year before came out and said, ‘Hey, we were expecting you to play longer?’,” recalled Graham. “They asked, “If we can rally 20 people, and find you a venue, will you come back and play Monday night? We saw on your schedule that you’re playing in the next town, so there won’t be a lot of travel.’ They really did their research, so we said sure, and it was awesome.”

“After that show, someone contacted us on Facebook, ‘My sister said you played an impromptu show Monday. I live three hours from there, and you’re going to be passing through to get to your next town. Will you come play for us too?’,” Graham explained. “We ended up playing in a town of 400, and 100 people showed up. They were so generous and excited to have music in their town.”

That’s also the genius of house shows, and tours built around them. The Rough & Tumble once played up to 150 gigs and drove 50,000 miles a year. They’ve been able to scale back that grueling schedule because a legion of supporters at every stop made it possible, and profitable. A suggested donation and self-serve selection of CDs and swag are still better than what most bands make in an average night tearing tickets and managing merch. It sounds complicated and calculated, but it’s much more organic.

“Matt and I have hosted a lot of things, and this was probably the easiest — and we’ve never done anything like it,” Kelli explained. “It was kind of like a potluck, but more ‘bring your own everything’. If we were outside, people would have to bring their own seats and blankets. That really took the pressure off of us as hosts.”

“Everyone introduced themselves to each other as they arrived, which for a concert was weird, but refreshingly weird,” Matt noted.
“There’s always the risk of opening your home to strangers, to the band itself or the dozens of people who might show up,” Kelli said. “I was surprised people would show up to someone’s house who they didn’t even know.”
Like many social media communities, the Rough & Tumble’s fans are connected to each other, not just the band. Though technically strangers, they hardly seem like it, or stay that way for long. The weather was a more imminent concern.

“We had this vision for how our backyard was going to look, and we felt like we could accommodate more people more comfortably outdoors. That was the feel we were going for — an outdoor, summer show,” Kelli noted. “Then when it was calling for rain, we worried that people might not come, or we’d have to figure out how to fit them all in our house. But it rained, and people came, which made it a small, wonderful, intimate show once everyone squeezed in.”

Unlike the typical tour where the band quickly disappears backstage or hides out on the bus, this concert ended where most parties do — in the kitchen. Artists and audience swapped stories seamlessly as insights on old songs and inspiration for new ones ebbed and flowed. From the backstory on the Rough & Tumble’s tribute album to 24 obscure and imaginary holidays to the happy accident of writing a song about cicadas in the same key the alien insects sing, any doubts about the unparalleled interaction of a house show were settled.

“Often we will walk into a show and people feel like they already know us, so we get to take three steps further into our lives because the norm of our abnormal life is already out there,” explained Graham. “The lack of a stage allows for a different kind of connection with the audience.” •


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