Readers of this blog know that I love music. My musical tastes are predicated on many things, various influences, but generally center around rock and roll and the subsequent tributaries that branch out from that originally subversive shoot.
I love live music, but like many of us as we get older, going out and seeing live rock and singer/songwriters doesn’t happen a fraction as often as it did for me in my 20s, 30s, and even into my early 40s. While not unfamiliar with house concerts and the movement of some artists to adopt this vehicle for playing out and even touring, I had never been to one. That would all change on Tuesday night.
Mary and I were invitees, attending our very first house concert at our friend Lesley’s house, in Falmouth. When I got the invitation two weeks ago inviting us, I was really excited; finally, I would get to experience a concert held in someone’s home.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. Lesley and co-host, Susan Cabot, suggested bringing a folding chair, something to share, and carpooling if you could; the invite also said it wasn’t a fundraiser, wouldn’t be overtly political, and it mentioned community-building.
Life is filled with running to and fro and clogged calendars. As luck would have it, Mary and I both had an open night and we were pleased that we’d be seeing Lesley and Roger again. The last time we’d been in the same place together was a December holiday party.
So, what is a house concert? I hate to disappoint those looking for something profound—it is exactly as it sounds—a concert held in someone’s house. While that explanation is simplistic to the max, the event can and would involve as much complexity as listeners cared to assign and imbue it with.
At one time, before music and just about everything in our culture became commodified, it was common for music and musicians to be part of any gathering and coming together of people. In fact, the musician traveling from house to house hearkens back to the days when music was played in settings that were more personal and intimate, not the large concert hall, or even club.
Music, performed by a talented, engaged performer, capable of connecting with a group of people, sharing a special evening in someone’s home is powerful and has tremendous potential for bringing about a collective coming-together.
Michael Holt would become the fit for that bill. Talented? Check. Engaged (and engaging)? For sure.
I knew immediately that Holt was a different musical cat when he took the time before the show’s 7:30 start to come around as people were meeting and mingling over light refreshments, introducing himself and talking with those attending.
This simple act of connecting with his audience, in a humble and human way moved his music from the realm of transactional entertainment, where an audience pays for the privilege of being entertained. Instead, Holt communicated that “I am here to connect, share my art, and I hope we have a special experience tonight.”
My interest and awareness of independent music, with its origins in rock (punk, post-punk, emo, slowcore, shoegazer, and now, post-rock) has progressively moved into other realms brushing up against the music I’ve been listening to and interested in for some 30 years. That swath of artists is large, even bordering on extensive, and yet, I discover new musicians and bands nearly every week. I’d put Holt in the new discovery category, although I had some awareness of a band he was part of, the Mommyheads, during the mid-90s, and during the time I was doing radio slots at various college stations.
We’re all so damn busy, running around like the proverbial chickens sans our noggins. A case in point; I get Lesley’s and Susan’s invite, and after checking the calendar, I kind of forgot about it. On Monday night, I finally devoted more than a cursory glance towards Michael Holt’s music, trying to frame some expectations and perceptions about what he’d be playing and sharing with us.
So, who is Michael Holt and what type of music does he play? Well, you can pick the Wikipedia entry, or you can take the bio from his own website. Both will provide information about him, although information doesn’t really capture the human quality about anyone.
When Michael and I were talking before he played, we were looking for intersections and common musical awareness. Two connecting points came up in our conversation; Bob Wiseman and Irene Trudel. I was very pleased. Wiseman, because I knew some of his music, knew that in Canada, he’s somebody that carries a great deal of cred, given that he’s won five Junos (Canada’s top musical honor) and also has been involved with a host of other Canadian talent, like Ron Sexsmith, Eugene Chadbourne, and Edie Brickell among many.
The latter name is a radio goddess that plays the most incredible mix of music every Monday afternoon on WFMU, from East Orange, New Jersey. Because of the power of the interwebs, I’ve been listening faithfully to her since discovering her special facilitation skills of grouping music and artists in 2005, when I was working on my first book. Something about Irene’s blocks of music make them conducive for writing and her sound collage seems to slow down and even suspend time for me.
Michael mentioned he’d been a guest of Irene’s on WFMU, which garnered him instant credibility in my book.
This is Irene’s (and Michael’s own) description of his music when he played on her show, November 2, 2009. The show is archived, so check it out.
“Back with another new album (the beautiful The Dawn Chorus, which I bought and have been playing constantly since the house concert), Michael Holt brought his beautiful musicianship to WFMU. He describes his music this way, ‘An uplifting, melodic pop album with fifteen songs about relationships, nature, and our need to protect the planet. Folk rock, chamber pop, alternative, bossa nova, classical art songs, country, and an Appalachian folk ballad all wrapped up in one.’”
This description captures really well the kind of music he ended up performing in Lesley’s Falmouth living room. A small, intimate group of 15 people got to hear an immensely talented performer share his art, his personality, and his human side.
Alternating between his Nord Electro 2 keyboard, and a Guild acoustic, Michael ran through two sets of 20 songs. To give you a sense of the selection, he opened with “Minuet,” a classical piece, by Ravel, a late 19th and early 20th century French composer. Next was a humorous ditty called “All the Michael’s of the World,” singing about Michaels like Michael Wagner, Michael Bolton, Michael Jackson, and Michael J. Fox (another Canadian), as well as Michelangelo.
What was nice about the gathering at Lesley’s was the group of various creative individuals that Michael’s music had brought together. I met people who were artists, professors, filmmakers, writers, and others that I don’t know what they do, but I know they were there to experience music played in its most basic element; a space with people.
Speaking of art. The third song might have been the most eclectic of the evening. The song, simply titled, “Art,” was a lyrical romp, infused with scat singing and what I’d characterize as stream of consciousness lyrics, possibly appropriating the process of creating art. In fact, I was sitting next to Julie Vohs, a Portland-based artist, and I asked her at intermission what her thoughts were about Michael’s “Art,” and if I was close on my description.
Julie said that she thought it did describe the process of making art, at least from her experience. “The call and response reminds me of how creativity bing bongs around and eventually grows an arm or a leg.”
Michael has made house concerts a big part of his musical journey, really embracing the experience. He mentioned at the start of his set that music used to be played in the home, the village square, the local pub, or even in a teepee. Michael articulated that house music “brings music and people back together.”
Prior to attending the house concert, I navigated over to Michael’s blog. This post in particular spoke to me about who he was and what informed his music and possibly why he has adopted the house concert model for sharing his music. I thought it could serve as his personal value statement. Perhaps he’d disagree.
What I liked about the post is that it offers a concise set of principles that at their core speak to reviving local culture and community, embrace the efficacy of local food, while putting music in its proper place, while also speaking to the need for cultivating sustainability in the places where we live.
So what does all this mean? Why does music played in someone’s living room constitute a topic worthy of 1,800 words?
We’ve delegated responsibility for almost every aspect of our lives. We’ve become so tuned out to the realities around us. We work, we go out to eat in restaurants, we have little awareness of where our food comes from, or the pain and suffering all around us; I’m not talking in the third world—I’m talking right here in good ole’ Maine and across the country.
I’m sorry to burst any bubbles, but voting for another huckster promising hope and change, while taking millions from corporate interests is more evidence that we’ve sold our souls. There’s no longer any justification for it and I’m not giving anyone a free pass anymore, thinking the world will change merely by pasting the “right” bumper stickers on our European sedans.
There are many like Michael Holt, offering a vision of what we could become, why we need to act now, and it doesn’t start through Facebook, or Twitter, but in the places where people gather face-to-face and practice the “ancient art of neighborliness,” to quote one of my favorite writers/thinkers, Wendell Berry.
We are experiencing crisis in America. To deny it is to reveal how co-opted you’ve become. Whether we’re talking climate, the economy, or the broken nature of our politics, we’re in need of some major intervention.
What I found particularly uplifting is that Michael Holt looks at the crisis and he offers the following message for addressing it;
He believes that the crisis “is an opportunity to rediscover community, work together like never before.”
It’s also the time when we must look inside our own hearts, stop lashing out at everyone else, and start living with an authenticity. It’s not about pointing fingers, but figuring out what our place is in bringing about a solution.
Can we get to know our neighbors? Maybe we can use tools like house concerts to bridge the divide.
I also like Michael’s last prescription; remembering to have fun!
I think he was sending that one personally to me; wrapped up and tied with a bow.