House concerts shatter artist/audience barriers
After moving back to Milwaukee from Nashville in 1999, Linsey and John Sieger wanted to support the many talented friends they had met in Music City who were visiting or passing through on tour, and they decided that hosting concerts in their Wauwatosa home was the best way to do so.
"When we first came back to Milwaukee, the club scene wasn't what it is today, and at most of the venues live music was more like wallpaper, just background music," says Linsey.
So she and her husband John -- a professional musician who experienced sweet-but-brief national success with the Milwaukee-based band Semi-Twang in the late '80s and was a founding member of The R&B Cadets -- decided to create the environment they craved: a venue that was personal, friendly, smoke free and most of all, about the music.
In the past two years, the Siegers have hosted seven or eight shows in their living room, dubbed "The Tropicana Room" because of its orange and yellow paint job. They can comfortably fit 45 guests, with some standing and some sitting in a "hodge podge of chairs from around the house."
The Siegers host primarily Nashville-based roots rock and Americana musicians, such as Amy Rigby and Greg Trooper, who will perform in the Tropicana Room on January 19.
John, who recently collaborated with "Whad' Ya Know?" host Michael Feldmann on an album called "Her Country," usually opens the concerts.
The couple charges $15 for tickets -- almost all of which goes to the musicians -- and asks guests to bring a beverage or food item to share. Linsey, who jokingly claims to have a "Martha Stewart Complex," takes a few dollars from previous earnings to whip up an impressive spread.
"If you're gonna do it, do it well," says Linsey, who sends e-mails to friends and friends-of-friends to announce shows.
Surprisingly, even though some of the people in their living room are strangers, the Siegers don't have any horror stories to share. "The worst thing that's happened is once we had a guy who wouldn't leave," says Linsey. "When we have shows on 'work nights' I tell people 'I will be booting you all at 11 p.m.' but this guy still didn't get the hint."
Deone Jahnke, a friend of the Siegers, also hosts house concerts in her Walker's Point studio space.
"The house concerts at my studio came about originally because I was asked by some friends if I'd sponsor an event for them," says Jahnke, whose studio can hold up to 100 people. "Word-of-mouth brought a few more house concert opportunities to me and then I began to selectively invite artists who I thought I'd enjoy showcasing, including clients or friends of clients."
Jahnke, a professional photographer with many clients in the music industry, says, "it's very natural for me to host a venue for musicians."
Nashville artists like Kevin Montgomery and Robert Reynolds as well as ex-Milwaukeean/current New Yorker John Kruth have all performed in her space.
Jahnke is in the process of solidifying the schedule for 2004 and hopes to secure Kevin Montgomery for February 6, Switchback for March 28 and has her sights on Phil Lee and Duane Jarvis, Joy Lynn White and Janas Hoyt of the Mary Janes later in the year.
Like the Siegers, Jahnke charges $15 for her concerts and asks show goers to contribute to a potluck spread. Both Jahnke and Sieger think the cover charge is a bargain considering the benefits.
"For $15 bucks you're getting a much more intimate experience than you could get in a club," says Sieger. "You get to hang out with the musicians, get your product autographed and most importantly, be in an environment where everyone's listening."
House concerts allow independent musicians to build a grassroots following and although more and more private venues are cropping up all over the country, the concept is far from new.
Throughout history, people have congregated in living rooms and salons to listen to poets, storytellers and musicians. Today, musicians are often idolized and isolated from their fans, but house events minimize the separation between artist and audience.
Plus, at house concerts the audience can witness every nuance of the artist's performance, something Rich and Cindi Morgan appreciate about the concerts they host in their Bay View home.
"Once you experience a house concert I don't think its ever the same (at other venues)," says Rich, who started hosting 10 years ago and now features eight concerts a year in his living room entitled The Endangered Folk Singer House Concerts.
"We had front row seats for Mary Chapin Carpenter at State Fair and it still wasn't the same."
Unlike Jahnke and the Siegers -- who host their events at night -- the Morgans have their folk shows at 4 p.m on Sundays.
"There are advantages to having the concerts at this time -- except during Packer season," says Rich. "This way, the concerts don't conflict with 'real' gigs and it gets people used to a routine."
The Morgans, who can comfortably seat 31 people in their living room, opened their home to folk musicians such as Lil' Rev, Mark Dvorak, Jim Henry, Nancy Moran and more. In 2004 they plan to bring back some of their favorites from the past 10 years, including Lee Murdock, TR Ritchie and the Winstons.
Dave Porter, a friend of Rich's and Chicago musician, originally suggested that the Morgans provide space to folk artists. "At the time we lived in a tiny house, but Dave had been blind since birth and didn't know how small our living room was," says Rich.
Endangered Folk Singer House Concerts cost $12 in advance, $15 at the door and $10 for senior citizens. The Morgans do not permit smoking or alcohol consumption during performances, but serve hot spiced apple cider, lemonade, coffee and snacks.
"Cindi usually goes into a baking frenzy ... and we try to be sensitive to the artist," says Rich, who has played guitar for 25 years. "Some are vegan or vegetarian."
Like the Siegers, the Morgans have had mostly positive experiences hosting house concerts.
"We've been pretty fortunate," says Rich "Early on we had some odd things happen. Once our fireplace started belching smoke so we opened some of the windows and our beagle went crazy at something outside and the singer had to stop singing a tender little song about his wife having a baby."
Another time they had to call the police because of a disorderly houseguest, but the experience didn't tarnish the couple's appreciation of "live from the living room" performances.
"House concerts offer a wonderfully relaxed evening," says Cindi. "You can meet some really incredible people, not just the artists, but also people who are interested in networking and finding out about gigs."
To find out more information about upcoming house concerts, e-mail Linsey at firstname.lastname@example.org and Deone at email@example.com Also check out The Endangered Folk Singer House Concerts Web site at www.folkfans.com.
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