Lansing's House Concert Scene
If you’re old enough, you remember the days of giant house parties complete with kegs, raucous bands and cops. If you’re cool enough, you remember when Rick’s, The Landshark, and Small Planet featured bands that actually played original material and not Jagermeister specials or twice closed doors. If you’re still into the local music scene, chances are you’re now spending time at places like Mac's Bar
, Ten Pound Fiddle
or Basement 414
. For the die-hard music junkie, you might be found getting your fix on any other day of the week at a friend’s house listening in on original jams in a living room turned music hall.
Evolution of the House Concert
For a good lot of us, however, our music experience rarely spans outside the likes of the U2 spectacle at the Breslin Center or the 12-year Lansing music tradition that is Common Ground. A completely different experience patiently waits out there for us musically green folks; one that pays homage to the deep roots of what music is truly about.
Consider a time before the mega concert, or even before the formation of bands proper. Folks with instruments and voices would gather in yards or living spaces to share the experience with their community. And so you have the seeds of the modern day house concert.
If you went house show tonight, chances are you’d be hanging out with a group of about 20 people, greeted with a spread of food or perhaps the children or dogs of the hosts, and maybe later an open mic opportunity would pop up for the musically gifted. Above all else, you’d experience a community based in artistic intimacy.
An Intimate Connection
Ben Hassenger, of Lansing’s Frank and Ernest
and frequent house show host, enjoys the immediacy of the connection felt between the performer and the audience.
“At a house concert, there is no elevated stage, no boundary between the two groups; it eliminates the traditional sense of bloated egos and attitude that is oftentimes associated with large shows and simply brings music back to the way it’s supposed to be expressed… people having a full conversation and sense of unity through art and passion.”
It’s that sense of intimacy that appears most valued among the music community. Even smaller bars with more of an indie vibe can’t facilitate that connection when you throw in the distraction of cover charges, drinks, servers and noise.
Cathy Illman, who plays solo as Veloura Caywood
, says “I like playing house shows when I’m doing my solo set because it’s more intimate. People pay attention to you more and you don’t feel as much pressure to be a performer. You can talk to the audience in a casual way and you can try songs that you normally might not do.”
Cause & Effect
Illman has been part of the Lansing music scene since 1995 and notes that there is only small handful of venues in the area for the indie artist. Those venues present a challenge for the artist and the audience: compensation tends to be low and admission and drink prices tend to be high. House shows not only break the barriers between artist and audience, they virtually erase the challenges bars present. Her peers seem to agree.
“House shows are a response by musicians and fans to the lack of venues in Lansing,” says Ben Hall, of The Further Adventures of FatBoy and JiveTurkey
. Hall, who is also the stage coordinator for both the Jazz and Blues Fest in Old Town, thinks that there has been a “de-evolution” of music in general.
“The commoditization of music has caused people to value music less. They don’t care if music is live or not; the industry has a formula for what people are looking for. This lack of appreciation for true musicianship causes bars to hire DJs for a quarter of what it would cost them to provide live music.”
Smitty Smith, ‘Impresario’ at Pump House Concerts
in East Lansing, jokes that he finds himself shushing folks in bars during music sets on account of his being spoiled by his extensive time spent in “listening room” venues.
The Pump House, located in East Lansing’s Bailey Neighborhood, was born out of the house show concept. While Pump House hosts up and coming national touring artists, local favorites like Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
and Jen Sygit
have also graced the 1930s converted water-pumping house listening room. Like most traditional house concerts, Pump House does not charge an admission, instead asking for a donation or passing of the hat that goes directly to the musicians.
“There are artists who make their living on house concerts. They find it much more appealing to have a small group of people focused on their music. Their songs are important to them and it gives them an opportunity to emotionally experience the songs with their audience. You don’t get that at bars,” says Smith, who recommends also checking out Music Under the Pines
, another listening room venue in Okemos.
Get Thee To a Concert
Hearing about and getting to a house concert isn’t entirely easy, and that’s part of what makes it such a unique experience. “It’s got to be word of mouth, out of necessity. It’s our house, so we don’t feel comfortable promoting like an ordinary venue would,” says Joshua Barton of the on-hiatus AvE House
“It’s a challenge,” Barton says, “convincing people to come. Strangers get a little wierded out about going to someone’s house they don’t know, precisely because it stands to get so familiar.”
Hall says it’s up to the people going to house shows. He jokes, “We’ve got to grab some of our musically ignorant friends and drag them along.” Cultivating that appreciation is essential to the life of indie music in Lansing.
Are you interested in opening your own home to this type of experience? Get in touch with Smitty at Pump House. Smith says, “There are never too many venues or opportunities for live music. House shows sound cool to folks, but I know it’s intimidating to get going, so I’m happy to help make it work for them.”
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Doug and Telisha Williams of Nashville Tennessee perform on Halloween weekend at the Pump House
Photos © Dave Trumpie