I committed my first house concert faux pas the moment I rang the door bell of the stately home in Cooper's Pond subdivision on a recent Saturday night. Art Bowman answered the door with bare feet and a beer in hand and just laughed.
Seasoned house concert guests, you see, lugged their six-packs of beer and covered dishes up to his back deck and came in through the back door, then piled into the living room to settle in for an hour and a half of live acoustic jazz and bluegrass.
House concerts - a casual, intimate musical performance offered in a private home - are slowly becoming the next big thing, and Lawrenceville's Bowman is one of the first in the area to try out hosting concerts in his own home.
The idea is to avoid the smoky clubs, rowdy crowds and Ticketmaster surcharges that come with live music these days. The real draw, though, is the intimate setting. Concertgoers get to sit about 20 feet from the artists, and the small group setting encourages artists to share the stories of how their songs evolved or what inspires them, Bowman said.
"It's kind of amazing," Bowman said. "I hate it when I go to the Variety Playhouse, pay $30 to get in and then $5 to $6 for a beer, and then two rows behind me people are talking."
House concerts are also invaluable to independent musicians, said Charlottesville, Va., singer Jan Smith, who played with her husband, Jeff Vogelgesang, at Bowman's house that night. The gigs don't bring in a ton of money, but they often allow artists to fill in the gaps between traveling tour dates. Smith and Vogelgesang, for example, played a show the day before at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, and stuck around in town for the house concert. It's a chance to sell a few CDs and, hopefully, attract a few new fans while they're already on the road, she said.
"We're able to connect with the audience, and they get excited about us and our music," Smith said. "It gives you a chance to talk, and get to know the audience in an intimate setting."
The duo - Smith sings and plays guitar and Vogelgesang accompanies on mandolin - also plays at bars, clubs, festivals and private events. When they play house concerts, all the proceeds go directly to them, rather than to a middleman or the venue.
"There are so many great songwriters and singer-songwriters who don't get recognized. Sometimes it takes a situation like this, where they can try out some songs and see how an audience reacts, then pitch their ideas to a label," Bowman said.
An intimate show
Smith and Vogelgesang performed their set right in front of Art and Nance Bowman's fireplace. Smith kept her extra guitar picks on the fireplace mantle, and a pair of recessed lights acted as spotlights on the two performers.
Smith played her varied set of up-tempo bluegrass tunes and sultry jazz numbers to what she calls a "listening audience." The two dozen or so audience members sat quietly, tapping their feet and nodding their heads to the music. Smith shared the stories behind her songs, and her set list was fluid and in part determined by the audience. When an audience member clapped after Smith mentioned she grew up in Louisville, Smith said:
"Well, shoot, since I mentioned Louisville, let's do my Louisville tune."
Occasionally, the ceilings creaked as someone walked around upstairs, and at the sound of a particularly rousing applause, the Bowmans' calico cat, Mosi, streaked out of the room. But otherwise, the concert experience was similar to what you'd get in an intimate coffeehouse venue.
After the show, the guests milled about the kitchen, snacking and chatting with Smith and Vogelgesang. The musicians passed around a sign-up sheet for their e-mail list and hawked a few of their CDs. By 11 p.m., the crowd started emptying out.
The couple planned to stay in a Motel 6 that night, but only because they were traveling with their two puppies. Many visiting artists stay the night with the Bowmans, and then join the family for breakfast in the morning. It's actually an idea that's as old as music itself, Smith said. In the colonial days, musicians traveled from town to town and stayed in whichever houses would host them.
"To me, it hearkens back to the old days of parlor music, before TV and movies, when people hosted live music in their homes," Smith said.
The Bowman House
Bowman has been hosting concerts in his neighborhood since November 2004, but he used to hold the concerts in his neighborhood's clubhouse, which he'd dub "The Bowman House" for the night. Earlier this year, he tried using his own back deck as the stage and loved the results.
"I used to use the clubhouse because I didn't think my house could hold all the people. Now, I'm never going to go back to the clubhouse. It's so much more relaxed and so much more fun at the house," Bowman said.
Because of the hot, sticky June weather, Bowman moved Smith's set inside to his living room. The Bowmans can fit about 40 people comfortably in their house, and they put on about six to eight shows each year.
Most of the acts Bowman books are acoustic singer-songwriters, and many are in the folk or country genre. He described his first booked concert, Larry Joe Taylor, as a cross between Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker - "coastal and Western." On July 22, the Bowmans will host Bob Livingston, who plays in Jerry Jeff Walker's band. Walker will play a set at the Atlanta Botanical Garden that weekend, and Livingston will stay on to play at the Bowman House.
Bowman primarily markets his concerts by sending out mass e-mails - he's amassed an e-mail list of about 100 potential guests. In fact, Bowman relies heavily in the Internet when organizing his concerts. A Web site, www.houseconcerts.org, is updated with tips on how to throw a great house concert and has links to several Yahoo groups made up of house concert veterans.
"I'm sure this occurred before the Internet, but I don't know how I would do it without the Internet," Bowman said.
The Bowmans don't provide beer or other alcoholic beverages, but guests are encouraged to bring their own. And everyone brings along a covered dish to share with the group. At the Jan Smith show, guests noshed on smoked salmon, chicken wings, potato salad, chicken salad, cheese dips, brownies and lemon squares.
Guests pay a small donation directly to the artist, rather than purchasing tickets. If Bowman charged a ticket price, his concerts could be considered a commercial venture and involve permits, licenses and other hassles.
He's in charge of booking the acts, rounding up an audience, providing speakers, amplifiers and microphones, and setting up the seating. But none of the money goes to Bowman. He's in it for the fun.
"I've lost money every time I do this," Bowman said. "My daughter calls me a bed and breakfast for musicians."
But for Bowman, a longtime music lover, the benefits are greater than money. He gets a chance to share some of his favorite music with people who might not otherwise hear it. Over the years, Scott Peterkin of Lilburn has come to trust Bowman to always throw a great concert.
"It's about trusting his musical taste. Every time, I leave saying, 'How can he possibly top this?' And every time, he does," Peterkin said.