"Folk songs, by the very nature of their definition, are 'people songs,'" says folk troubadour Rich Bala. The guitarist and dulcimer-player from the mid-Hudson Valley recently brought his repertoire of classic folk tunes --- along with his own compositions about rivers, sloops, and cows --- to Rochester.
But he couldn't be found in a concert hall, coffeehouse, or barroom. When Bala came through town on October 11, he didn't have to belly up to a microphone under hot stage lights or slurp tepid coffee in a dismal, graffiti-covered dressing room.
Instead, he was happily perched on a folding chair, playing sans amplification, cigarette smoke, or noise to an appreciative crowd over at Ray Baumler's house.
Folk concerts held in houses like Baumler's are part of a growing trend, born of a desire to free folk from the forces of commercialism and return it to the folks themselves.
Baumler lives in a cul-de-sac on Janice Drive, an unassuming suburban street in Chili. This seemingly unlikely live music venue actually suits folk music perfectly.
Cars started rolling in around 7:45 p.m. that night. People let themselves in the front door. Host/promoter Baumler warmly greeted everyone, collecting a $10 cover from fellow members of The Golden Link Folk Singing Society and $12 from non-members. Coats were piled high, along with instruments, in the spare bedroom that would later serve as Bala's lodging. The audience members milled about Baumler's living room and kitchen, eagerly awaiting the show.
This is "music as it should be; in the home, from the heart," declare the folks behind the Web site www.houseconcerts.com. The site lists over 100 "acoustic listening rooms" in 29 states and Canada, but there are undoubtedly hundreds more run by people taking this DIY approach.
A folk singer himself, Baumler has hosted concerts in his home for the past three years. His pad fills a gap in a folk scene, where audiences can be lean and club shows too costly to present.
"I don't know if you'd say the market [for folk music] was soft," Baumler says. "The idea is that we can afford it, because we don't pay for sound or the facility."
When concerts are put on in clubs, someone's almost always losing money --- usually the performer. Baumler has little overhead. The proceeds go to the artist, who is also put up in a guest bedroom and fed a home-cooked meal.
"For this music, it seems to be a perfect fit," says Bala. "When a lot of these old traditional songs were first being performed, there was no performer, no audience, just everybody sitting around singing the songs. This is almost like reverting back to those days."
Jeff Rice started presenting concerts in his Fairport home this year after falling in love with the concept. "My sister has been hosting [house concerts] down in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for two years now," he says. "I'd gone to some of her concerts and was just really impressed with the whole house concert experience. It was something that I had to do."
Rice plans on hosting one concert a month between March and November of next year. But though that would make his home a fairly regular folk venue, he's not worried about not having an entertainment license. As far as city officials are concerned, he doesn't really need one.
"If they're charging money, it could come under the guise of a commercial activity," says Tony Mittiga of the city's permit office. "But if it's just people gathered at a house, giving a few bucks for somebody there who's going to perform, that might be a different story." In other words, just as city code enforcers don't go around busting up garage sales, house concerts fly below radar.
"I would probably say, depending on the numbers, it would be hard to distinguish between that and somebody just having a party," says Art Ientilucci, the city's Director Of Zoning.
Baumler's not getting rich hosting these shows, he just breaks even. "We're a not-for-profit organization," he says of the Golden Link Society. "I do have beer, but I don't sell anything."
As the house concert phenomenon continues to flourish --- it's been spreading "like wildfire in the last two years," Bala says --- some hosts have been turning their homes into de facto folk clubs. But Bala says those hybrid gigs lack the grassroots, "homey appeal" of real house concerts.
Folk artists are drawn to these venues by word of mouth, a promoter's request, or simple convenience. "Most of these performers don't just do house tours," says Baumler. "Maybe a house here, a festival there, a coffeehouse here." Word of Baumler's cordial, professional approach gets around. "I've had people come all the way from Massachusetts just to do my show," he says proudly.
Though he usually seeks out desired artists, Rice gets a lot of queries through his web site, www.flowercitymusic.com.
The cowboy duo of Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn were recently looking to pick up a gig to help cover road expenses from a wedding engagement in the area. It was rather last minute, but Dr. Al Power, a folkie who's presented shows in his Irondequoit home off and on for the past eight years, heard of the pair's plight and saved the day.
"I said, 'What the hell? I'll just pick up the living room and hope some people come,'" Power says, laughing.
Just about everyone uses the word "intimate" to describe the house concert scene. "When you write songs, you want people to listen to them," says Power, a performer himself. And at these shows, it's all about the songs.
"People are here specifically for the music," says Rice. "Not to drink beer and talk to their buddies."
The shows at Baumler's have plenty of audience-artist interaction. Bala introduced most of his tunes with a humorous anecdote about their origin or a glimpse at the quirky characters involved. He made a couple of false starts, but the atmosphere was friendly and laid-back enough that he could just laugh and start over, encouraging the audience to join in. This audience participation usually culminates in a sing-around at the end of the show that goes well into the night, with fans who've brought their own instruments jamming with the featured guest.
For some performers, the intimacy of house concerns is too much like playing under a microscope.
"I'd rather be an audience member at a house concert than a performer," says Sherri Reese, who, with partner Joe LaMay, performed one of their first shows at Baumler's house. "It's a little distracting, being that close to an audience. I'd much rather be on stage."
"I like the separation," says Power. "It's easier for me to perform on stage for hundreds of people than to sit there with 20 people staring you in the face while you're singing."
Turning your home into a house concert venue usually requires only minimal modifications, like moving furniture, shoveling the driveway, or buying a larger capacity coffee maker.
"The configuration of my house suits the concerts pretty well," says Rice. "It's just a matter of clearing out the furniture in the family room and setting up a bunch of folding chairs." Rice can comfortably fit around 50 people, and can accommodate musicians who play with a little amplification, upon request.
Baumler's mini-concert hall is essentially a cozy den just off the kitchen capable of accomodating as many as 40 people. The performer sits just feet from the listeners, making fresh breath as important as a charismatic stage presence. A makeshift spotlight --- a floor lamp with half the shade blocked off --- illuminates the "stage" area, which also includes an upright piano.
Baumler's sky blue carpet is mottled with white --- it's as if the audience is sitting on folding chairs in heaven. So they don't sink through the clouds, Baumler serves light snacks and beverages during the intermission (a sign on the fridge --- featuring a grandkid's artwork --- suggests you help yourself). He discourages audience members from bringing dishes to pass, fearful he'll get fat on the leftovers.
"It's just a great way for people to hear some really good music," says Power. "These aren't just a bunch of hacks. You can see some really superb musicians in a cool setting."
"I think people should try it," says Bala. "If nothing else, you can take a look at how somebody decorated their house."