Homeward Sound: Why house shows can often trump playing clubs for some touring musicians

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Road-weary and cash-poor, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell just needed a comfortable place to play ― and stay ― in St. Louis in July of 2005. Or at least that's how Cary remembers it. "I'm pretty sure something either got canceled or we were really broke and didn't want to have a day off," says Cary, a velvet-voiced North Carolinian whose closest brush with widespread fame came when she formed one half of Whiskeytown alongside Ryan Adams. "It's a little hazy." Cockrell, who was touring with Cary and a trio of supporting players behind the duo's Begonias album, remembers things a bit differently. "Rick reached out and asked if we'd be willing to do a concert there."

See also: The Highlands House Concert Series makes its mark

Either way, "Rick" was Rick Wood, a longtime boardmember of KDHX in St Louis's annual country-and-Americana celebration, Twangfest. And "there" was the house in Clayton he shared with his wife and kids. Mid-week, he'd circulated an e-mail invitation to several of his most music-savvy acquaintances, who in turn forwarded it to theirs. Ultimately, some fifty people showed up at Wood's house on a sunny Sunday evening, half-racks of Pabst in hand along with a suggested $20 donation for the band.

It was the first time the Woods had ever hosted a show in their living room, which opened to the kitchen and backed up to a sliding glass door leading to the patio. "We didn't really know what we were doing," concedes Woods. Prior to the show, Cary relaxed out back, while Cockrell held court on the couch as a baseball game played on TV. It wasn't clear how many people realized who he was as he casually commented on the action, an armchair Tim McCarver of sorts, albeit of higher pitch and fleeter intellect.

The band assembled its gear on the living room's area rug, and the audience closed rank around them, sitting or standing where they could. Amplification wasn't necessary, as the crowd was right there. Cockrell, who recently played before 15,000 fans in Nashville with his breakout band Leagues, insists that "it's scarier playing a living room with fifty people. It's so much more intimate. There's an energy that takes over ― you and them. It's a roller-coaster ride."

"You feel a little like you're naked on the first day of school, because you're practically singing in somebody's face," adds Cary. "Then there's the whole sensation of singing without microphones. It takes some getting used to, but it's awesome. It's just so immediate and intimate in a way a club show really can't be."

After the performance, Cary and Cockrell spent the night (separately, as the pair were never an offstage item) in the bedrooms of the Wood children. The ones decked out in superhero pillowcases. "There were a lot of less comfortable accommodations than that," says Cary of the rest of the tour, laughing. "I remember the slightly off sensation of kicking the kids out of their rooms. I remember when I was a kid, I wouldn't want some strange musician sleeping in my room."

It was a lucrative concert as well. Without having to split the door with the venue ― the Woods declined to profit from the venture ― and with a donation amount that far outstripped what they would have charged at a club at the time, Cary and Cockrell left with a handsome profit. Add in the peculiarly robust merchandise sales and free room and board, and, as Cary puts it, "You can really make some money."

"I've never played a house concert where all the seats aren't full," says Cary, for whom such shows are now a regular part of any tour. "It's almost always a guaranteed $1,000 gig or more, and with club shows, guarantees are an elusive creature. Filling up clubs is harder and harder these days. I find the new music business model kind of daunting."

She's not alone. While house shows ― or living-room shows, in the current vernacular ― have doubtless been around since the first caveman learned to bang a pair of rocks together and wail cacophonously, they've crystallized into a highly sophisticated and more fiscally prudent alternative to playing clubs and more traditional performance spaces. And while such venues are hardly a dying breed, they've shrewdly taken to partnering with the Woods of the world, collaboratively luring artists who might otherwise be inclined to bypass cities where they might only secure a lone and unpredictable club gig.


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