Music in the House

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.

Michael Holt meeting his audience before the show.

Michael Holt meeting his audience before the show.

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.’”

Waiting for the music to start.

Waiting for the music to start.

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.

Michael Holt pounding out a tune on his keyboard.

Michael Holt pounding out a tune on his keyboard.

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.

Michael, after a costume change, performing "Art."

Michael, after a costume change, performing “Art.”

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.”

He plays guitar, too.

He plays guitar, too.

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.

Michael, Lesley, and Susan.

Michael, Lesley, and Susan.

9 thoughts on “Music in the House

  1. Jim,
    A “house concert” sounds like a fascinating experience. I remember a few “house concerts” on Woodland Avenue when Reggie Livingstone Black brought his guitar down from Center Street and sat in Mom’s lyre-back chair and jammed. Did he play “Stairway to Heaven?” You’ve also been known to bring your guitar around. Maybe it’s time you started practicing a few chords for the holiday season and I’ll have a sing-a-long up to the Ridge.

    One of the wonderful experiences I’ve had in going to certain Protestant denominations is their absolute joy in singing and learning that I loved singing too. We can take our voices back from the emptiness of the hucksters and the twerkers; yep, because that is just the sound of one hand clapping.

  2. As I was sitting in Lesley’s living room, I thought about Reggie and his gently-weeping guitar. I’m sure “Stairway to Heaven” was part of the set list that day on Woodland Avenue.

    I still have my guitar and it’s just a matter of getting it out and playing it again. I have a repertoire of tunes and yes, learning a few tunes for the holidays is a good suggestion.

    I also enjoy lending my voice to the chorus of others in making a joyful noise.

    Music, books, sauerkraut salons; we can take our country back, one living room at a time.

  3. How are these funded? Does the host(ess) pay all the costs associated and then invite guests at discretion? Or are tickets sold, or the hat passed? Does the musician stay at the house overnight as well? How is Holt traveling, by his own wheels or by something else? How did your hostess become involved in this at all, to offer her house?

    So many questions.

    • Michael is a son of long-time friends and I’ve known him since before he thought he wanted to be a chef (he was in his teens then). He took up music-writing and singing and playing instead. Inspired choice!

      Michael arranges all his house concerts himself, launching from a big email list built over the years. He told me a three month tour typically requires three months of focused planning. (Later in the fall he’ll be in Europe again for house concerts in Belgium, Holland, England.)

      Concerts are by invitation of the sponsor-host. Michael passes the hat at intermission. Food and drink can be simple; and asking invitees to contribute something is in the spirit of the gathering. We gathered at 7 and socialized, music began promptly at 7:30. Michael played two sets separated by an intermission for donations and dessert and more wine.

      He stayed with me and I fetched him from the bus station and delivered him there again in the morning. I was able to borrow an amplifier. He’s happiest with a grand piano but travels with his trusty keyboard, his backpack, and his guitar, tambourine, and kazoo — as a troubadour should.


      • Thank you, Sue (and Jim below) for the explanations. While the logistics interested me, it was the link between you and Holt that was missing. That’s what led me to wonder just how he came to be in your house. All in all, a very interesting exercise.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for the lovely blog! Which of my own blogs did you read? The link you’ve provided takes me only to my homepage, not to one of my blogs.

      Loosehead Prop, there are many ways house concerts are done. The way I do it is I contact a potential host (friends, friends of friends, people who’ve signed my mailing list, etc.), or they contact me. We pick a date and time. I drive to their door or bus to their town and they pick me up at the station or give me directions via public transit. They invite their friends. I furnish them with pics and descriptions of my show to help make their invitations attractive. They provide anything from just juice, chips and dip, to all manner of spirits and food. Or we start the gathering with a big potluck. If they have a piano, that plus my portable instruments and props are all that’s needed for the show. If no piano, I ask them to borrow an amp so I can use my keyboard. One of their guests already planning to attend the show can usually lend one. The whole thing can be very easy for the host. They only spend as much as they want on refreshments. Their guests pay for the entertainment, when I pass the hat for pay-what you wish voluntary donations. Guests tend to put between $5 and $20 in the hat each. I give the host a free album. Thanks for your interest! Have a house concert! Invite me or your own local musician friends to play!

      • Michael,

        I really appreciate that you took the time to stop by and even better, leave your comment. With the additional information from you, the star of the evening, and Sue Cabot, one of the organizers, this post really provides a nice touchstone for anyone contemplating attending a house concert, or even better; hosting one of their own.

        Thanks for asking about the link; I had posting the wrong link in reference to your blog post about what I perceived as perhaps something akin to a personal values statement, or at least the philosophy that informs your music and your house concert troubadour travels. I’ve now corrected it in the post, but also, it’s this one, “Paying for Music.”

        I look forward to staying in touch and thank you for a wonderful evening. It was a great coming together and an event that we need more of in our communities.

  4. I don’t know all the details, but I’ll fill-in what I think I know, LP:

    1) A donation was asked for and the hat was passed. I used Michael’s own guide on his website to gauge what we put down; I also bought two CDs, which are fantastic, btw.
    2) Michael travels by bus, or train.
    3) I’m not sure where he stayed, but one of the organizers is an old friend, Sue Cabot, so he may have stayed with her.
    4) Again, Sue knew Michael from school and they grew up together.
    5) Lesley and Sue had become friends, and I think they discussed doing something like this and knew Michael was passing through the area on this way to Vermont, and eventually, to his home base in Toronto.
    6) This was by invite only.

    There are a variety of ways for these types of shows to happen and get off the ground.

    Anyone with additional information is free to jump in.

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