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Go behind the scenes of an underground house concert

Hampden house concert
Hampden house concert - Steve Ruark
It's a Tuesday night and 25 folks have gathered in this Hampden rowhouse for an underground house concert. They clap along as David Glaser plays bluesy folk tunes on his guitar.

“I love playing on a hardwood floor—get a nice bass drum going,” Glaser says. He checks in with the crowd. “How’s it going?  Did I spit on you?” 

House concerts, another manifestation of the DIY trend, are reactions against a manufactured corporate world. Organizers and artists reject the assumption that anything worth doing has already been done on a huge scale by a multinational corporation. 

Artists describe house concerts as a more organic, humanistic experience than playing in a large venue. And for some indie musicians, playing a gig at Rams Head Live isn't an option anyway, so a house concert is the best way to connect with fans and promote their music. 

The Baltimore area has a vibrant community of folk-music house concert venues, including the Historic Cooper House in Columbia.  HouseConcerts.com lists half a dozen house concerts in Lauraville, Ellicott City, Columbia and other locales. You'll find about a dozen house concerts listed over the next two months on the Concerts In Your Home schedule. Conferences such as the North East Regional Folk Alliance, and social networking sites like Facebook also make it easier for artists, hosts and music fans to connect.

“We don’t have to be associated with corporations,” Becca says. “People have been getting together and playing music for generations.” (Becca and Billie didn’t want their last names published as other house concert hosts have had police at their door after neighbors complained about the noise.)

John Linn, a regular attendee of Becca and Billie’s underground house concerts, explains the appeal. “It’s an intimate experience. It’s what happened in the olden days before electricity—people would gather and tell stories and play music.” 

Prodded, he grins. And “it’s what will happen after the zombie apocalypse.”

Early in the evening, the scene mostly feels like a party. The hosts are putting out cheeses, dips and homemade cookies.  “We don’t have to be associated with corporations,” Becca says. “People have been getting together and playing music for generations.”Someone else offers Natty Bohs. 

Then Becca, dark hair tucked behind her ears, welcomes us to the first show of the Awkward Pause 2013 season — the official name of their homemade concert series. We shuffle into the rows of folding chairs, which face the “stage,” or, really, the back of her dining room. 

There’s the usual information—the bathrooms, the CDs for sale, a reminder to turn off cell phones. “It is a concert, after all.” 

Becca reminds us of the donation bucket and that “everything goes to the musicians.  We’re here to support the music. If you can’t remember if you donated, donate again.”

Up next is Bethel Steele, with a clear voice and Ani DeFranco styling, who gushes, “I love David Glaser!  He’s like bacon—everything is better with David!”  The singer-songwriter jumps into the first song, asking the audience, “You know when you’re in love with somebody and you never want to leave them?” 

“We feel you!” someone responds.

“Yeah,” Bethel grins. “You know what I mean.”

In the second set, Bethel and Glaser play together, riffing off each other, adding a base line or a counter melody, layering sounds. “Well done,” Glaser smiles after a particularly exquisite moment.

He explains the rapture of jamming with another singer-songwriter: “It’s like you’re traveling in a foreign country and you finally find someone who speaks your language.” One of the last songs occasions a sing-along—fifteen voices create a gentle current of harmony.

A gig at a large, public venue might draw a Boston-based performer like Bethel to Baltimore, for example, but the house concerts provide a bed and gas money.  “I not only get fed, but get a decent paycheck too,” Bethel laughs.

“You can be a lot more vulnerable with your audience—not separated by a PA system and lights. You’re not going to see music like this unless you’re in a house.”

The first quiet notes of “Here Comes the Sun” wrap the room. Glaser’s husky, warm voice hunches as he looks each audience member in the eye.  Behind him, the sliding glass doors reflect his wine-colored shirt. 

Billie explains what drew her to the scene: “We love seeing live music, so it’s cool to do it in our house.” Quiet by nature, she warms to her subject. “It feels like providing a service. Musicians get a place to play, friends get introduced to new music.”

The shows, Annapolis-based Glaser explains, are the “best venue for independent singer-songwriters like me. I’m not famous. I can’t play at Ram’s Head. If I want to play my original music, this is the venue for me.” 

Rachel Wilkinson is an avid traveler and Charm City resident who lives in Arcadia. She teaches English at Loyola Blakefield High School and at UMBC. To learn about Awkward Pause’s 2013 lineup, e-mail [email protected].

All photographs by STEVE RUARK.

Click photos to read captions.

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