Wednesday, January 26, 2011

talk talk: deconstructing the house concert phenomenon with Olenka Krakus

We have yet to sort out the details, but it looks like late August will once again see Casa del Zombie rocked by a house concert. I’ll keep you posted on the details as they solidify.

I thought it kicked all kinds of ass, that very first house concert I ever hosted. Olenka and the Autumn Lovers mesmerized that packed living room, pretty much everybody bought CDs, and we somehow ended up with more bottles of wine than we started with. From a host’s perspective, and judging from my hangover, it was an unparalleled success.

But I wanted to get the opinion of someone who has a far better sense of what makes for a successful house concert, someone who is a seasoned musician and herself a veteran of many house concerts, so after the dust settled, I picked the humungous brain of Olenka Krakus, frontwoman of Olenka and the Autumn Lovers:

BB: What’s the most unusual venue you have ever played?

OK: Well, two spring to mind at this point! The first would have to be a venue that we encountered on our most recent West Coast tour: All Citizens in Bruno, Saskatchewan. It’s an art-space/café that is the contrivance of one Tyler Brett, former Westcoaster who relocated to Bruno SK in order to buy a home and start a scene! Tyler’s place is really the smallest venue in Canada: he books the front room of the café regularly (and has had countless Canadian acts through already), but its capacity is something in the range of 15-20 people, and the point of such an intimate setting is just that: intimacy. The audience is supposed to feel fully immersed in the music. We played to a group of locals and friends who drove in from far and wide to see us, as well as to Tyler and his sweet dog and cat. It was a really cozy and inspiring experience.

The second venue that kinda blew our minds was another house-show space in Saint John, New Brunswick that we lucked upon during our October 2009 East Coast tour to Halifax Pop and back. The home is owned by John Laracey and we came upon it through acquaintances of ours who knew his daughter Leanne. John has been involved in the Saint John scene for a while and has a tonne of music equipment, but we didn’t know this heading into the show. All we knew was that we were supposed to play a house-show with Bruce Peninsula, Entire Cities, and The Weather Station and that we were rather curious to see how any home could accommodate our lineup.

When we arrived we were astonished to discover that there was a full sound system set up in part of the living room – I mean mics and stands, monitors and speakers, a mixing board… the works – not to mention a kitchen laden with potluck goodies! Weather Station opened, then we played, and by the time BP went on stage the show was rollicking and everyone was friends with everyone.

BP broke into a wicked cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, prompted by the excessive spins that Rumours got over the course of the night between sets, and then settled into their set, only to be thwarted by the arrival of the police! Undaunted by requests to turn off the power for the night and shut the show down mid-song, BP finished off their set with an unamplified, a capella finale which involved them leaving the stage area and chanting through the end of their song with the entire audience participating and bouncing along.

Following this display of camaraderie and defiance, the police officer was introduced by Jim to the crowd as an old friend of his and was greeted with cheers, which followed him out of the home when he saw fit to take leave of the party. Entire Cities finished off the night with an acoustic set in the living room proper, and at the end of the night, we all felt a little transfigured.

BB: What is the largest venue you have played? The smallest?

OK: The largest – probably the outdoor stage at the Fred Eaglesmith Annual Charity Picnic, or the festival stages at London’s LOLA or Home County, but in terms of an actual venue, I think the Aeolian Hall in London or Distrikt in Regina (opening for Rah Rah) were among the biggest. The smallest – easy: All Citizens (see above)!

BB: Do you perform many house concerts? What percentage of your performances compared to halls, pubs, etc would take place in houses?

OK: At this point, our shows seem fairly evenly divided between house-shows, art galleries, bars, halls, churches, and various other alternative settings. We certainly encourage house-shows, when they seem to work logistically for us and the person putting on the event.

BB: Can you actually make any money by performing house concerts, or do they function as more of a filler for otherwise unbooked evenings?

OK: That really depends, given that each house-show experience is so unique. What we can usually depend on is an attentive audience, which typically translates into merch-sales of some sort, so there’s often some kind of financial return, but we don’t enter into these sorts of settings thinking we’ll be making a killing; we tend to agree to these types of arrangements when we anticipate a special night during which we’ll get to engage with the audience more intimately. We have had some lucrative events, and we’ve also had shows that eventuated in little more than some good conversation (both duly appreciated).

BB: Following a house concert, musicians will often sleep at the host’s house. Does that ever feel weird or uncomfortable?

OK: Beginner and mid-level touring bands are always crashing on the floors of acquaintances’ homes; it’s a bit weird, but you get over it (unless of course your hosts are a little more eccentric than you bargained for). But aside from initial, fleeting discomfort, we usually feel a great deal of gratitude and humility as a result of the hospitality that we experience on the road. I am consistently floored by the generosity that we encounter from people whom we barely know; it really helps to reaffirm my faith in human decency.

BB: Can you tell me about the worst experience you have had at a house concert (or staying at the house afterward)?

OK: Haha. Well…. without revealing too much for the sake of discretion… we did blunder upon a performance in which various Autumn Lovers felt a little too… um… loved, which resulted in our swift departure post-performance and an uncomfortable night sleeping on the side of the road in our vehicles!

BB: Best experience you have had at a house concert?

OK: Well, that would have to have been your lovely house-show! …at least for us girls (given that the boys were unable to attend our West Coast tour because of vehicular complications). Barb’s house-show was incredible! The whole night was so carefully coordinated and welcoming, and the audience was so engaged (to the extent of asking questions between songs!) and sweet that it was hard not to feel inspired and humbled by the experience.

BB: I think that house concerts are one way to reach an audience who might not necessarily attend a concert. Do you see this happening?

OK: Absolutely. I think an increasing number of Canadian touring acts are recognizing this aspect of the current touring circuit; possibly due to the reduction of traditional venues across the board in Canada, there’s been an influx of house-show spaces (some more or less installed as legitimate venues) that have cropped up all over Canada. House-show events tend to appeal to an audience that is interested in attending an intimate performance complemented by a close gathering of friends and acquaintances; I think a lot of people find the prospect of engaging with the musicians personally while mingling with friends very appealing.

BB: Do you have any advice for musicians thinking of performing their first house concert?

OK: I guess I’d advise musicians to enter a headspace of genuine humility and accessibility: be appreciative and easygoing, because these sorts of events are really special and require the encouragement of exceptional people in order to exist at all.

BB: Any advice for hosts considering their first house concert?

OK: Know your audience and your performer; a lot of house-shows are successful because the performers are able to accommodate unamplified settings, but not all performers can do that, so to avoid any discomfort for the musicians, hosts should consider pairing their resources (unamplified, live sound vs. a small sound-system) with the acts they’re hoping to host. Hosts should also make an effort to consider the appeal that a given performer/band will hold for the expected audience: are you inviting a bunch of kids to dance the night away to a rookie electro band, or are you bringing in a quiet folk act that will do best with a seated, attentive audience?

BB: Are house concerts the way of the future?

OK: Not necessarily THE way, but certainly a part of the way. Audiences want the experience of intimacy and familiarity that house-shows offer. It’s possible that such settings are increasingly attractive to music goers, but I don’t think that the house-show experience will dominate; it’s just one of a number of ways of interacting with music in the existing music scene. People still want to get lost in the throngs at festivals and stadiums, or chat it up with friends milling about in a dark, dingy bar, as much as they want to hang out with friends and musicians in living rooms.


Olenka and the Autumn Lovers are currently creating a healthy buzz with their gorgeous new album, And Now We Sing, which made many top 10 lists for 2010 (including here at Bad Tempered Zombie).


Allison said...

Most excellent news! I've been seeing their name pop up on popular music blog I frequent (besides here). Don't think a house concert is in the travel budget for this year, but I look forward to hearing all about it!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers are indeed causing a lot of buzz these days, Al, and deservedly so.
And I will keep you up to date on the next house concert, just in case you find yourself with some additional travel moolah.

umbrellalady said...

I must say that I certainly have enjoyed the CDs that you sent out to us - they must be so wonderful in person!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'll have to buy you their new one too, Kathy, it's outstanding! You should really come on out for a house concert sometime. It's only an 11 hour drive...

drivinman said...

for a free guide on house concerts, please visit ConcertsInYourHome

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks for the info, driveinman.