Music is in the house in new format

September 17, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - As twilight approached, all eyes were pointed toward what passed for the stage - the mics and speakers set up at the edge of Rebecca Mitchell's patio. There, against the backdrop of a champagne-pink sky on an August evening, jazz singer Esther Haynes performed a cover of "Summertime" from the musical "Porgy and Bess."

The only thing that separated Haynes from the audience, about 40 listeners, was a Tiki torch and garden fountain in the Mitchell family's backyard.

Mitchell's show was typical of house concerts, a growing trend in the underground folk and acoustic jazz scene. House concerts are generally open to the public, though some hosts prefer that attendees sign up on guest lists in advance. Shows are most often advertised through word-of-mouth or on the Internet. Laws prohibit hosts from charging or selling tickets for house concerts, but a voluntary pass-the-hat collection is usually taken for the performers.


Musicians who perform at house concerts said they prefer the intimate setting of playing before a small crowd. "You feel welcome," said Haynes, who is from Takoma Park, Md. "A lot of times, you're playing in a restaurant, it's not quite a concert. People are doing other things. It's distracting."

Attendees at Mitchell's most recent house concert said they also liked the small setting. Visitors, seated in lawn chairs and garden benches, sipped Shiraz. A few were seated on blankets in the grass.

"Every time you go out there's a DJ," said Catherine Silver-Ridell, 53, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., who attended Mitchell's house concert with her daughter and niece. "You don't hear real music anymore, and I miss it."

Haynes was the third headliner to perform in Mitchell's backyard since she began hosting concerts at her Martinsburg, W.Va., home at the start of the summer. Mitchell, who advertises upcoming shows on her blog, has six more house concerts scheduled through November.

Folk duo Little Maggie will perform there Saturday, Sept. 23.

"I think of it as having a party in my house," Mitchell said.

Like Mitchell, Candice Craig, 32, of Hagerstown, has hosted concerts in her home. Craig, who also is a musician, said she's planning to host another concert in November. While Craig's shows are open to the public, she requires guests to sign up on a guest list prior to attending.

"I don't want a whole bunch of people showing up to my house," she said.

While crowd control might be a concern for hosts like Craig, city and fire officials in Hagerstown said house concerts present other safety issues.

Municipal ordinances outline the process for hosting parties in public venues or in buildings intended for gatherings. But the rules aren't as clear for concerts at a home.

"We've never had a case like this," said Stephen Bockmiller, zoning administrator for the City of Hagerstown.

"If you're inviting a dozen or so friends over to listen to someone play the cello, that's not a problem," Bockmiller said. "What if people come in and you're taking donations for the artist? That's murky all around. If it's open to the general public, you're getting to the gray area."

There also are fire safety implications, said Ron Cote, an engineer for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Both Hagerstown and Martinsburg have adopted the NFPA's Life Safety Code as law.

Events held at a person's home, Cote said, do not necessarily fall under the scope of the Life Safety Code, which ensure people can safely exit a facility in the event of an emergency.

"You would hope that common sense would apply," Cote said. "You wouldn't have 100 people in your basement if there's only one exit."

Bockmiller recommends that people wanting to host a house concert contact their hometown zoning office or fire marshal to figure out if they need certain permits. Cote recommended consulting with fire officials first.

Craig said her concerts typically drew around 15 people - just enough to fill her living room.

"I'm a musician myself," Craig said. "I really appreciate the small experience because (the audience is) there for the music."

"The connection, it gets lost when you're playing at a restaurant or a coffee shop because there's so much else going on," she said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Little Maggie in concert as part of Rebecca Mitchell's house concert series

WHEN: 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23

WHERE: 300 N. Tennessee Ave., Martinsburg, W.Va.


MORE: For more information, call Rebecca Mitchell, 304-260-9589, or go to

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