Steve Peer’s living room is anything but typical. Sure, there’s a TV, a couch, a bookshelf — but one night a week, the long, open hardwood floor in his house in Ellsworth is filled with folding chairs and people, packed in together like sardines. Some guests are pushed into the kitchen; some find themselves exiled toward the back door, next to the washer and dryer. Some climb up the wooden ladder into the loft that overlooks the living room, for a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on below.
Most weeks, Peer, a teacher by day, musician and concert promoter by night, opens up his home to as many eastern Maine music fans as can feasibly fit into the kitchen and living room (usually capped at 50). He hosts a traveling array of mostly Canadian musicians in a series of house concerts known as 430 Bayside — his address, naturally.
“I guess I’m trying to be the Andy Warhol, and run my little factory,” said Peer, 55. “I want to create an environment for art and music and cool things to happen. Why not do it here?”
Depending on how many people are performing and how many come to the show, the atmosphere can range from a cozy and intimate evening to a raucous, elbow-to-elbow party. You can help yourself to snacks and drinks, but please try to avoid knocking into anything. Recent shows have featured everyone from the youthful energy of Halifax, Nova Scotia Celtic band Pogey, to the stirring traditional Maritime duo Jim Payne and Fergus O’Byrne of Newfoundland.
Some nights there’s step dancing and shouting; on others, there’s hushed, intent listening, as when Payne regaled the crowd with a wild Newfoundland tale of witches, princesses, brothers and a magical flying boat. Sometimes you forget you’re in someone’s living room until you look away from the musicians and realize they’re playing next to the TV and a grayish-blue love seat.
The 430 Bayside concert series began in May 2009 when Peer struck up a dialogue with Phil McIntire, who runs a longstanding concert series featuring both Maine and Canadian musicians at his Skye Theatre, located in the western Maine town of Carthage. Maritime fiddlers and folk musicians pass through Maine during their tours of the Northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada, and while the Skye Theatre has long been a regular stop, there wasn’t a venue in eastern Maine to showcase all that talent.
“Most of these guys, they’re going to end up coming through Ellsworth to get anywhere else in Maine. It’s on the way to Canada,” said Peer. “Phil basically asked if I’d be interested in hosting shows here. Now, a year on, we’ve actually had people return. It’s developed a following. Some nights, it’s pretty wild.”
For musicians, it’s a nice diversion from the norm. Peer offers up a little Maine hospitality, making them breakfast and dinner and putting them up in guest bedrooms. The $15 cover charged at the door is split 20-80, with the larger percentage going to the artists. It’s stress-free, it’s low-key, and it’s the polar opposite of a commercial venue.
While the majority of artists who have performed at 430 Bayside are from Atlantic Canada, Peer also has booked local musicians, and is open to just about anything genrewise. He routinely holds band practices for local groups, and can set his space up as a recording studio as well. His house is your house.
“I don’t really worry about it. It’s my house. I can do what I want,” said Peer. “Besides, these people come here to hear the music. And that’s what makes it all worth it, you know?”
Peer has played drums since he was a child. Originally from Dover, N.J., he came of age in the middle of the late 1970s New York punk scene. He was a roadie for Richard Hell of the band Television. He frequented CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. In 1979, he moved to London and immersed himself in the punk scene there. But by 1985, he was burned out on rock ’n’ roll. In an effort to reinvent himself, he sold his drums and moved to Lubec, where his family had spent a few summers when Peer was a child.
“If Manhattan is one end of the world, Lubec is the other,” he said. “I wanted to get as far away from it as possible.”
An escape from his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was not in the cards, however. Within a month of moving to Lubec, a group of Washington County country musicians looked him up, having heard through the grapevine that a drummer had moved to town. When he told them that he’d sold his drums, they said they’d buy him another set. After a few weeks, Peer found himself playing in a band called Custom Made Country, which he did for several years.
“Playing country music was absolutely the kind of entry point for me, as far as folk and bluegrass and roots music goes,” he said. “And they were killer musicians. It was a lot of fun.”
Peer moved to 430 Bayside Rd., Ellsworth, in 1989, eventually taking the position of director of special education for School Union 93, which encompasses Blue Hill, Castine and Surry, a job he has held since 1989. He received his master’s degree in special education from the University of Maine in 1986.
“They’re very forgiving of all my antics. I’m very lucky to have that,” said Peer. “I often say that working in special education matches up well with the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. It’s unpredictable. You have to be on your toes and resourceful and creative. If you’re going to have a day job, it works really well. It uses the same side of my brain.” For the past 20 years, he has played in an array of bands, and currently performs occasionally with five different groups. There’s the Tumblers, his R&B-soul band; Spilled Milk, a long-running alternative rock group founded by Bangor songwriter Doug Hoyt; the Shambles, a blues group; the shock-rock metal project Astro Slideshow; and the Larks, Peer’s punk band.
While all this begs the question of when Peer finds time to sleep, his seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm seems to pervade all that he does. Besides, sleep is overrated. Why go to bed, when you can have a bunch of people over to enjoy some music in your living room?
“I’m a pleasure person. I just want people to have a good time,” he said.
The next 430 Bayside concert is at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, featuring Prince Edward Island musicians Richard Wood, Gordon Belcher, Megan Blanchard and Ward Macdonald. A complete schedule of concerts can be found at www.myspace.com/430bayside.