On a warm Saturday evening in early October, darkness blanketed most of the homes along David Fox’s street in north Salem. Overhead lights illuminated a few porches, but none compared to the inviting glow emanating from Fox’s front windows.
The loud talking and laughter floating out to the sidewalk seemed to indicate a typical weekend house party, until you examined the outlines behind the open blinds: a drum kit, microphone stands, a man standing at a keyboard.
Inside, Kevin Rafn, the leader of Seance Crasher, crooned to about two dozen mostly 20- and 30-somethings perched on couches, chairs and the living room rug. Some stood in front of him, swaying and bopping their heads to the pop-like beat. They sipped from bottles of beer they’d grabbed from the kitchen fridge, and munched on brownies, pickled green beans, or bread slathered with brie and pesto that Fox had made with basil from his backyard garden.
The mix of laid-back party, live music and potluck suits Fox’s vision of the slice of Salem culture he’s cultivated for the past seven years: the house concert.
By taking concerts out of the city’s traditional music venues and bringing them into his own home, Fox says he provides a forum for a unique exchange of energy between the performers and the audience — an energy that feeds the musicians’ creativity and makes for a better show. At the same time, these concerts build a sense of community — not just among his neighbors, but among a larger community of like-minded people sharing an interest that reaches back generations.
“I read somewhere that a much higher percentage of people used to be musicians than now,” says Fox, a business owner in his 40s who in his younger days fronted a Bay Area punk band. “Before we had radio and TV, people would get together at someone’s house where there was a piano, somebody would bring a mandolin, someone else would bring a violin, there might be some guitars and a stand-up bass, and they would play music in the house — it’s reminiscent of early chamber music.
“As my house started transitioning towards that, I thought, ‘This is really cool. This is a way to re-recognize what’s important to being human, and what’s important to being in a community.’”
House concerts take many forms in Salem. One woman hosts traveling Irish musicians for shows that are only open to her friends and acquaintances. Another woman’s monthly concerts held in the hayloft of her barn are so popular with her friends that she frequently has to turn some of them away. Marc Nassar, a chef who lives just a few blocks from Fox, holds a regular series of folk-oriented shows in his home, complete with catered dinners.
Most serious hosts follow basic house concert etiquette — keeping the music volume fairly low, giving their neighbors advance warning, ending before the city’s noise ordinance kicks in at 10 p.m. Some host free shows, while others ask for money at the door to pay the bands. Most advertise via email or Facebook to friends and to those who have found them through word of mouth.
This is a way to re-recognize what’s important to being human, and what’s important to being in a community.
Fox’s house concerts mostly feature local musicians, although a few traveling artists have also stopped in to play. He doesn’t pay the performers, but he says the bands usually don’t mind. Sometimes he passes around a hat for donations.
Salem musician Julian Snow, a regular performer at the Fox home, says artists appreciate house concerts for the deeper connection they feel with the audience compared to a traditional music venue. It’s hard not to feel more connected when the crowd is only a few feet away and not separated by the edge of a stage.
“I’ve played at bars where only the bartender is listening,” Snow says. “Or maybe there are quite a few people in the audience, but they’re not paying attention. It’s an alienating experience. At house shows, the host is a sympathetic person who invites his sympathetic friends. You’re guaranteed to have at least two or three appreciative audience members, and sometimes many.
“People like the intimacy of being able to see the performer right there, close up, and they enjoy the sense of the audience and the band forming a circle as it were, to create a musical experience. … At many house shows, you’re only focusing on the music. That creates a unique experience which can be a lot more special.”
Snow’s latest band, the Murmuring Pines, opened the recent concert at Fox’s home. Their vocal harmonies, laid over keyboard, drums, guitars and violin, filled the room even without the use of microphones. Except for breaks to grab more beer or to pet Fox’s two energetic dogs, the audience members focused mostly on the musicians.
At many house shows, you’re only focusing on the music. That creates a unique experience which can be a lot more special.
“With the Murmuring Pines, our shtick is playing house shows,” Snow says. “If you read our manifesto on our website, we talk about how we don’t really want to play traditional shows anymore. The whole concept of the band is quiet-ish and meant to be heard in living rooms.
“Acoustically, (house shows) serve some types of music better. … Certain types of singer-songwriter stuff, or experimental music that’s not that loud, tends to sound as good or better in a smaller space.”
On this particular night, the audience had more reason than usual to be attentive. Their invitation to the show came as a thank-you for contributing money to a Kickstarter campaign to release a vinyl 7-inch split single on local label Warble Records.
The finished product featured Rafn’s lounge-like pop tune “Bragging Rights” on one side, and the Murmuring Pines’ pounding cover of “Viper,” written by Salem musician Peter DeGroot, on the other.
After Seance Crasher’s set, the concert-goers collected their copies of the 7-inch and mingled with each other and the musicians, enjoying a few more snacks and drinks before heading back out into the evening. Some hit the road for home, while others planned to continue partying elsewhere.
Most cleared out by 10 p.m. After all, it was Fox’s house, and he needed his sleep — he planned to run a marathon in the morning.
The next evening, Marc Nassar bustled around his kitchen as people trickled into his home and found seats at small café-style tables in the living room. They perused the dessert menu — coconut cake or cherry zucchini bread with strawberry rhubarb sauce, parfaits with Dutch chocolate pudding, fruit topped with homemade yogurt or rhubarb sauce — and expressed their choices to Nassar’s girlfriend, who made her way to the kitchen and back a few minutes later with their delectables.
It felt more like a restaurant than a concert venue, but in the corner sat a stage with a microphone, and in the next room waited a Western-shirt-clad young woman, ready to pick up her guitar when the time was right.
If Fox’s concerts mostly draw the under-40 crowd, Nassar’s are more for their parents. Gray hair sprinkled the audience of about 20, who discussed community news and politics while sampling their desserts.
“I usually bring in acoustic singer-songwriters and folk musicians,” says Nassar, who began his concert series about six years ago. “David is more likely to bring a band. And the musicians at his concerts are more oriented for a younger crowd, a bit higher energy, whereas I’m going for lyrics and song delivery.”
A former restaurant owner who now runs a catering business, Nassar felt it was only natural to add food to the mix when he started hosting house concerts. The recent event featured only desserts, but he typically serves a full dinner with appetizers, two soup courses and dessert. Attendees pay a certain amount for the show, plus more if they also want dinner. All proceeds from the concert portion go directly to the performer.
“I try to create an atmosphere where listening to the concert is the priority,” Nassar says. “I make sure that everyone has a place to sit, all the seats are pointed at the performer and I have a stage. I do everything that I can to create an exchange between the audience and the performer.
“My goal is to bring musicians that command your attention and bring an audience that loves to listen. That’s the whole reason I created the house concert series.”
The woman with her guitar was Melissa Greener, a self-described emo-folk-crooner from Nashville whose tours often comprise mostly house concerts. Once the dishes were cleared away and Greener began to strum, the room went silent but for her voice and guitar. Between songs, Greener shared the stories behind each tune, almost like a living room version of VH1 Storytellers.
The intimacy of the event is the main draw for audience members, Nassar says. And the pre-show dinner helps people loosen up — which benefits them as well as the musicians.
“I have found that the dinner does something beyond just feeding people,” he says. “Oftentimes the performers will sit down and eat, and the audience bonds with each other. There are some communities created, they’re having fun, and by the time the show comes around, they’re relaxed. … This goes a long way towards building connections between the performer and the audience.”
Nassar only books touring musicians, focusing mainly on singer-songwriters whose lyrics and performance style captivate him. He first found performers by contacting some of his favorite folk artists; these days, several musicians per week email him asking to perform at his house.
“I’m really picky about the folks I bring in, because I want to bring in the highest quality music possible,” Nassar says. “I also want to bring people who Salem doesn’t normally get a chance to hear.”
Which ultimately is the spirit that keeps house concerts going. Whether seeing a traveling performer who wouldn’t be able to book a show in a traditional venue, or hearing a local musician in an unconventional and exclusive setting, concert-goers get a unique experience — a chance to discover an amazing artist in an intimate way that might not otherwise be possible.
“It’s kind of like guerilla entertainment, because it’s not caught up in the establishment,” Fox says. “It’s not a for-profit venue, so there’s no agenda aside from the music. The music is it. That’s the agenda. That’s why we’re going.”
Want to attend a house concert?
It can be tough to find house concerts in Salem, because many are private and only advertised to friends and acquaintances. Often you just have to know the right people. But if you start asking around, you’ll be surprised how many you start to learn about.
Learn more about Marc Nassar’s concert series by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to host a concert?
Visit the website Concerts in Your Home to download a free how-to guide, register your home as a concert site or search for traveling musicians who are looking to play house shows.
Sarah Evans is co-editor of Salem Is. She most recently rocked out to Siberian band White Fort in someone’s basement in Salem.
Summer Pommier, an amateur photographer, has seen musicians play Japanese punk, European folk and everything in between at Salem house shows in the past 16 years.