Flower power burst into full bloom one warm August night when Victoria-based, self-described jazzadelic trio the Party on High Street were trying to cajole more than 40 onlookers into a singalong. “OK, when we get to this part, repeat after me, ‘Holes in my pocket!'” encouraged the guitarist before launching into a rhythmic ditty that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Little Feat record. Few did, although most of the crowd – ranging from 30-ish Gen-X-ers to middle-aged boomers who probably remembered Little Feat in its prime – bopped in perfect time as they got down with the funk.
In one corner, dressed in a tank top and a sarong, John Armstrong, the show’s impresario, waved his hands like a tai chi practitioner over a Theremin, providing a space-age vibe to the funky beats. With a hot band into full-tilt boogie, an enthralled audience, Christmas lights adorning the mic stands, and a backdrop of black curtains with paisley-printed sheets filling the gaps on the wall, the event was more like a post-Woodstock love-in than a club night.
More to the point, the bash wasn’t even in a club at all, but in Armstrong’s second-storey loft in the CPR Irvine district just south of Old Strathcona. “It’s just inspiring to witness music being made from the gut,” says Armstrong about the experience.”There’s no stage and everyone’s on the same level.”
Armstrong’s shindig highlighted the up-close-and-personal amenities of staging a house concert, which these days is fast becoming a live alternative to the nightclub circuit. Because most home-based shows are staged privately, there’s no way to discern how many of these events actually take place, although stats from Winnipeg-based Home Routes, Canada’s largest booking agency specializing in house concerts, offers plenty of evidence of its growth. When the company started in 2007, they had 47 homes staging their artists across the prairies. Today, 165 locations, including three in Edmonton, host its roots-oriented roster from Inuvik to Stanstead, Que., with roughly 23,000 people attending some 700 shows annually. In 2015, Home Routes artists – including local guitarist Ben Sures – pocketed nearly $500,000.
“I think people really like the intimate environment where you can watch live music,” says Tim Osmond, Home Routes co-founder and artistic director, about the appeal for bungalow-based shows. “You’re right up close. You can hear them, you can hear the lyrics, you can hear the intricacies of the instruments, there’s no coffee maker or loud bar in the background that’s going to get in the way of the music lover and the musician.”
While folkies seem to dominate the house concert scene, other genres, from alternative rock and metal to electronic music, have also jumped on board. One of the most popular hangouts is Clint’s Haus, a Ritchie neighbourhood home that specializes in staging hardcore rock. On the opposite end of the scale, classical performers like keyboardist Tammy-Jo Mortensen have staged shows in their own houses.
“I think it’s lovely to make music in such an intimate venue,” says Mortensen, who’s played a number of Christmas events in her Queen Alexandra abode. “It also gets quite expensive to host a classical concert with just a couple of players in many venues in Edmonton, so house concerts are a great alternative.”
Mortensen adds that some of the city’s more opulent hosts pull out all the stops, such as one family in the Westridge neighbourhood who frequently stage benefit house concerts for the likes of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Pro Coro Singers. She remembers attending one garden party that had a live act playing in front of a well-heeled audience imbibing the complimentary drinks and munching on a spread of cheese biscuits, pt and imported cheese and sweets.
“It feels a bit Downton Abbey-ish,” says Mortensen. “Everyone’s got a glass of champagne while they are mixing and mingling, the ladies wear their hats to shield them from the sun, and the music helps to create that party atmosphere in an elegant and sophisticated way.”
Dale Ladouceur, who plays a 10-stringed instrument called a Chapman stick, finds that house concerts are perfect for acts who fall between the cracks of whatever genres clubs are more willing to facilitate.”My band doesn’t have a lot of places to play. We’re not jazzy enough for jazz stuff or folky enough for folk stuff,” she says. “House concerts offer a whole new avenue for us.”
Booking agent Cameron Noyes, who handles shows for such local performers as Jen Paches and multiple Juno award-winner Bill Bourne, has noticed house concerts have become bigger players in Edmonton, especially in the wake of such notable clubs as The Artery, The Pawnshop and Wunderbar shutting their doors the past couple years. Although venues like The Almanac and The Needle Vinyl Tavern have sprung up to fill the void, the changing club scene is symptomatic of the inherent instability of Edmonton’s live music market.
“Venues were struggling partly because they’re putting on smaller shows where it’s impossible to make money,” says Noyes. “The venue automatically needs a couple staff to sell a certain amount of beer to make it worth turning on the lights, whereas at somebody’s house, the lights are already on, the piano’s already there, and it’s no extra expense to a house concert presenter to bring a bunch of people over and charge them $20, with everything going to the artist.”
However, Rebecca Anderson of folk rockers F&M, which has played its fair share of nightspots and home shows, hasn’t found much overlap between patrons checking out live music. “It’s a different audience in that those who go to clubs and those who go to house concerts are not always the same people,” she says. “I find house concerts have a lot of people who heard about us or heard us on CBC and are coming to check us out for the first time.”
“The coolest thing we’ve seen some people do is make their homes into little mini-venues and try to put on an evening,” adds her husband, Ryan. “Some of them have a lot better gear than some of the venues.”
Despite its emergence of late, house concerts are nothing new. Mortensen believes they go back centuries to a time when chamber acts would play in homes of the nobility. More modern variations, according to Osmond, started in the 1950s, when McCarthyism prompted radio stations and music venues to blacklist folkies like Pete Seeger, who were able to keep their careers alive at home shows presented by fans.
Whatever the motives, most proponents believe that as long as audiences continue to show up, house concerts will continue to pack in the faithful. As Armstrong notes, it’s not just audiences who receive a payback at such events.
“I think one of the best benefits of house concerts, is that touring acts get to interact on a closer level with the local scene,” says Armstrong, who has since moved out of his loft. “I really enjoy it when artists get to connect with folks that lead to bigger and better things.”
This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.