After nearly 10 years of hosting house concerts at 430 Bayside Road, his home in the southern end of Ellsworth, Steve Peer has scaled back on the number of concerts he holds each year. There’s a lot more competition now.
“It seems like everyone and their mother are hosting house shows now,” said Peer, who also drums for local rock band the Crown Vics. “I used to do three shows a month. Now I’ve got to spread it out. There’s a lot more out there.”
In the past few years in eastern Maine, the phenomenon of regular folks hosting musicians and other performing artists in their own homes, barns or garages has swelled — from invite-only backyard shows, to semi-public performances in otherwise empty spaces, such as the concerts at 58 Main St. in downtown Bangor.
Why the renewed interest in this intimate, homegrown means of hearing live music? Sean Gambrel, who books shows for 58 Main St., thinks there are several reasons.
“What we are doing is in response to there not being a great venue for this sort of thing. There are bars, and there are big theaters, but there’s no place to just sit and hear music and really engage with it,” said Gambrel, who is in his second year of booking shows at the downtown Bangor space. “It’s hard to really listen when you’re at a rowdy bar. And it’s hard to fill a huge theater. And it’s expensive. … This feels intimate. It makes you feel like you’re part of something.”
Gambrel, also a DJ at WERU-FM, wanted to bring Americana duo The Lowest Pair to Bangor. He’s a big fan. After investigating other available spaces in downtown Bangor, a mutual friend introduced Gambrel to Lance and Amy Blackstone, who’d recently purchased 58 Main St. as their new residence. The bottom two floors of their building were open space, formerly housing retail operations, and the couple was looking for unique ways to use it — especially the second floor, which can comfortably seat 90.
Gambrel asked, and the Blackstones signed on to host their first house show in October 2015.
“We feel some responsibility [because] it’s a storefront in downtown Bangor and we are residents,” said Amy Blackstone. “We love this city, and we care about it, and so another benefit — a bonus for us — is to be able to not have an empty storefront in this period where we don’t know want we want to do with the space but also have it be used. … It’s just been very gratifying to be able to share it.”
Since then, Gambrel and the Blackstones have hosted shows about once per month, ranging from cellist Rushad Eggleston, who is a former member of Crooked Still, to experimental singer-songwriter The Suitcase Junket. Rather than a traditional ticket, all shows come with a suggested donation — usually between $10 and $20.
Gambrel, who had no previous experience booking shows, said his method of getting artists to come to Bangor mainly consists of looking into their touring schedules, and then cold-calling them.
“It’s really as simple as just asking. Naturally, these are artists that I personally enjoy and that I’m willing to put some of my own money up for so they can come here, so they are part of this kind of Americana, folk, bluegrass world, but I’m up for anything,” said Gambrel. “These artists don’t want $5,000 bucks to play. They just want to be treated nicely and have a place to stay and make a little money.”
Peer, an old hand at hosting house concerts, echoed Gambrel’s sentiments. Peer has had a long history opening up his living room to artists from Atlantic Canada — mostly in the Celtic tradition, such as Prince Edward Island musicians Richard Wood and Gordon Belsher, but also singer-songwriters and other performers.
“If you’re a Canadian artist and you’re traveling between Halifax and Boston and have a day off, what else are you going to do?” said Peer. “You’ve got a place to stay, you can make $300 bucks, and you can eat some pizza. It’s something you can do without a ton of investment. There’s not a ton of overhead. People respond to that. That’s the magic of it.”
Another long-standing house show venue is the Ro-He-Ge barn in Belfast. Beginning in 2006, Dan and Amy Beckman hosted touring indie rock and psychedelic bands and artists. In 2015, Grant Corum and Suzanne Stone took over booking and moved onto the property.
Though the couple only hosts shows in the warmer months — the barn is unheated — Ro-He-Ge has become a little bastion of experimental music in rural Maine. Named for Roweena, Heloise and Gertrude, three women who lived on the property in the mid-20th century, it’s also the unofficial East Coast headquarters of Psychic Sounds, a music collective co-founded originally in Portland, Oregon, by Corum and Stone, who also are members of the band Million Brazilians
“The vibe is generally more free feeling than a ticketed venue. Bring your own drinks, kids can hang out, enjoy a fire, surrounded by the woods, come and go as you please,” said Corum. “House vibes are generally more relaxed and fun than a ticketed venue because it feels more natural to chill, conversate or get freaky without being policed.”
Gambrel said his shows attract people that not only are interested in hearing bands or artists they may never have heard before — but that are willing to pay for it.
“It’s very much a word-of-mouth kind of thing, though we do like new faces,” he said. “I honestly didn’t know if it would work in a place like Bangor, but we’ve been consistently filling the room. It’s pretty great that people are willing to pay $10 or $15 or $20 bucks to hear something new and interesting. It’s just a really great atmosphere.”
430 Bayside will host local artists Ellacapella, Trisha Mason and Bobbi Lane at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, with a suggested $10 donation. 58 Main St. will host songwriting duo Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson on Thursday, Dec. 8, Nova Scotian singer-songwriter Old Man Luedecke on Jan. 14, 2017, and Los Angeles-based rock band Trapdoor Social on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. Ro-He-Ge will announce shows for Spring 2017 sometime in the new year.