Be an Insider Pt. 2: New Jersey Living Rooms are Literally Rocking the House

Singer/songwriter Jesse Malin, left, entertains the Live @ Drew’s crowd.

Singer/songwriter Jesse Malin, left, entertains the Live @ Drew’s crowd.

There have been plenty of unforgettable moments for Doug Joswick at his friend Drew Eckmann’s house in Ringwood. But an incident last year strayed far from the norm: Joswick arrived at Eckmann’s house on Cupsaw Lake in need of the bathroom. On heading for the tiny downstairs loo, he encountered the actress Mary Louise Parker at an unguarded moment.

“I walked into her outside the bathroom,” says Joswick, a West Orange resident and music company executive.

Parker, like Joswick, had come to Eckmann’s for a concert. Eckmann is one of a handful of New Jersey homeowners—the numbers are murky—who regularly host what he calls “house parties” in their living rooms. Live @ Drew’s, the series Eckmann has been putting on in Ringwood since 1997, has drawn name artists such as Graham Parker, who has played 13 times, as well as Alejandro Escovedo, Kinky Friedman and Justin Townes Earle.

Most home concerts, such as this one at Drew Eckmann’s house by Debra Romer, are acoustic, a format enhanced by the intimate surroundings.

Most home concerts, such as this one at Drew Eckmann’s house by Debra Romer, are acoustic, a format enhanced by the intimate surroundings.

Eckmann, 56, pushes his couches aside about 10 times a year and welcomes artists to play—sometimes under a mirror ball, sometimes in front of two rows of metal folding chairs, 10 to a row. Guests have been known to travel from as far as California and Chicago, bringing food and drink to share—pizza and beer were plentiful at a recent show by singer/songwriter Jesse Malin. They typically pay $20 to attend, with all the proceeds going directly to the artist—standard operating procedure at house parties. Though he has squeezed more than 100 people (mostly standing) into his modest-sized home for certain shows, Eckmann prefers to max out his audiences at 60 to 65.

“That’s a nice number for us,” he says, adding that all guests must be invited.

If Live @ Drew’s is not quite big enough to attract Bruce Springsteen—among the artists Eckmann would most like to present—it has attracted media attention and a “gold circle” of about 25 regulars. Eckmann’s e-bulletin list has ballooned to roughly 1,300 from just a handful when he started. Last September, the New Yorker ran a preview of  Eckmann’s 100th show, which sold out at $100 per person. It was, according to Joswick, “a total leap of faith,” because Eckmann refused to divulge who would appear at the October 1 show. Rumors within the gold circle ranged from Ryan Adams to Green Day; in the end, the surprise attractions turned out to be rockabilly legend Robert Gordon, and Mitch Ryder of 1960s rock band Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

Eckmann, who retired in 2008 from his longtime job as an associate editor at Newsweek, started the series with his former wife. He attributes his ability to attract boldface names to years of experience paired with straightforwardness. When he wants to book a particular artist, “I just ask,” he says. As for celebrities, Parker found her way to Drew’s on the arm of her musician boyfriend, Charlie Mars, who was opening the show for Malin, a frequent Live @ Drew’s performer.

Mark Costanzo, co-host with his wife, Elaine, of the seven-year-old Freehold series Concerts in the Studio, is also accomplished at attracting high-profile acts; he’s had Fountains of Wayne and Robyn Hitchcock in a tiny converted photo studio next to his house. And because of his location, in Springsteen country, he does not dismiss as pie in the sky the possibility of one day presenting the Boss for his audiences of 45 to 55 paying guests.  “I half expect him to come up the driveway one day,” he says. “I know he knows about us.”
The ability to attract brand-name artists and the occasional celebrity is not a prerequisite for a successful run of house concerts, though. Some, including a series in Livingston called the Place, have been thriving for years without marquee names.

“People get to know me and trust my judgment. We all have similar musical taste,” says the host, a local second-grade teacher who asked not to be identified. She has been presenting little-known singer/songwriters, many of them found through emerging-artists showcases at summer music festivals, in her home since 2004.

As at Eckmann’s, guests arrive at the Place toting potluck offerings and hand over $15 or $20 for two or three hours of live acoustic entertainment. That they have often never heard of the artist is of little consequence, says the organizer, explaining, “It’s such a bargain to hear someone in this intimate setting with only a few other people.” The Place, decked out in thriving houseplants in its off hours as a living room, admits no more than 40 guests.

The Place provides a showcase for about 10 musical guests per year—while the host stays out of the spotlight. “A lot of people have gotten into trouble” for publicizing their house concerts, she says. “What happens is, someone in the neighborhood will call and say, ‘They’re running a business, charging people for concerts in their home.’ But what it really is is a party with live music, and people making donations to the artist, which is perfectly legal.”

Legal concerns partially explain the speakeasy-like vibe that settles over many series. Even Eckmann, who cooperated with the New Yorker article, took a few days to consider whether he was willing to be interviewed for this story by New Jersey Monthly. Years ago, he says, a former neighbor called the police during a show. He settled the matter after explaining that he was giving parties, not concerts, but he is still leery of drawing attention to his shows.

Few organizers maintain websites, communicating instead through email with potential showgoers, who are mostly friends and friends of friends. Capacity also is a deterrent to publicity. Though no two living rooms are alike, few can accommodate more than 50 people. And often more than 50 people want to come.
“When people hear you’re going to have somebody playing at your house, they initially assume it’s your brother-in-law who’s in some band. Then when they see how great they are, or if they recognize the name, they’re really shocked,” says Dave Khanlian, a fifth-grade teacher who has been hosting the series Jen & Dave’s House Concerts with his wife, Jen Hilinski, in Moorestown since 2002. The couple store folding chairs in their basement, and when a well-known artist like John Wesley Harding, who has played the series three times, commits to a Saturday-night show, Khanlian can find himself hauling out 55 of them.

“That’s if we really pack them in,” he says. Packed shows mean a bigger payday for the artist—Jen and Dave typically charge $20 per person, and most artists also sell CDs and T-shirts at the back of the living room, another standard house-concert practice—but for the audience, smaller shows can be just as satisfying.

“They’re intimate, and that’s really why house concerts are the best way to see a performance,” says Khanlian, who has spawned a house-concert boomlet in Moorestown. Neighbors Mark Hines and Elizabeth Endres started a series of their own, White House Concerts, in 2006 after taking in shows in Khanlian’s living room; guest artists have included Peter Case and Sarah Lee Guthrie with Johnny Irion.

The intimacy of the settings notwithstanding, some series, including Concerts in the Studio, Live @ Drew’s and White House Concerts, sometimes put on full rock bands: “As many as six people with a full setup, including a bass drum,” Hines says. But the nature of living rooms, and of New Jersey’s often dense communities, dictates that most house concerts are low-key acoustic occasions. And they usually start early—an advantage for music lovers who aren’t in their freewheeling 20s anymore.

“It’s frustrating when someone you really want to see is playing at a bar and they’re not going on until, like, 11:30,” says Khanlian, the father of two preschoolers. House shows, by contrast, often start at 8 pm and are done two to three hours later, during which time guests have had a chance to eat and drink, mingle with each other and the artist, and pay their respects to the host.

For the artists, house concerts offer a sense of community in addition to a not insubstantial payday. “Living room shows are a great way to get to know the people who’ve given us a career, who allow us to do what we love for a living,” says Pat DiNizio, front man of Jersey band the Smithereens and a fixture on the circuit; he’s been performing solo acoustic shows throughout the country, and as far away as Europe, more than a dozen times a year since 2000. (DiNizio also gives a backyard concert every Memorial Day at his own home in Scotch Plains.) “I love doing these events. And actually, I don’t know what I would have done without them during years when there wasn’t much work for me. It’s great that they’ve caught on.”

Despite operating under the radar, some house-concert series have been pulled into public spaces. Costanzo’s series has caught on so well in Freehold that town officials asked him to expand it to local public venues last year. Live From Freehold launched in January at the Freehold Jewish Center, with Escovedo playing for more than 200 people. (Costanzo still hosts Concerts in the Studio, too.)

“I have some sort of profile now, because I know booking agents and have seven years’ experience. They wanted me to take the series in a larger direction, make it something the community could get involved in,” says Costanzo, a project manager for a recycling management company by day.

His is not the only series to outgrow the living room. Last November, Mark and Arlene Klemow relocated their 11-year-old Scotch Plains series, Split Level Concerts, to a 70-seat loft space in the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway.

“They made us an offer, and we took it,” says Mark. So far, they’ve presented Ari Heist and Erin McKeown to near-sellout crowds at Split Level Concerts at the Loft.

Mark Klemow misses the thrill of having artists like Jill Sobule and Willie Nile traipse around his house. But Arlene feels differently. “I have mixed feelings,” she says. “We’d been doing it so long, and by the end I was feeling beat down, washing the kitchen floor at 2 in the morning.

“We’re empty-nesters now,” she adds. “It’s time to have our house back.”

House concerts typically happen on spring and fall weekends, but they’re not always easy to access. The best way to join the crowd is to know somebody; most hosts announce their shows via private e-mail lists. If you are outside that circle, a little Internet sleuthing can uncover organizers’ e-mail addresses. A few New Jersey concert series, including the following, maintain websites and welcome inquiries from new guests.
Notes From Home House Concerts, in Montclair, is run by Chris Kunstadter and presents roughly a dozen shows a year to 30 guests at a time; suggested donation is $15 to $20. Artists range from folk to jazz and have included Sloan Wainwright. notesfromhomenj.com

Concerts in the Studio, Mark and Elaine Costanzo’s Freehold series, gets rock bands like Fountains of Wayne and The Smithereens, and singer/songwriters like Steve Forbert. Shows for audiences of 45 to 55 take place 10 or more times a year; suggested donation is $15 to $50. concertsinthestudio.com
Cabin Concerts is hosted several times a year by Tim and Lori Blixt in the living room of their rustic log cabin in Wayne, which seats up to 32. Shows are acoustic and have included Josh Ritter and Richard Shindell; suggested donation of around $20. cabinconcerts.com

Portions originally published in New Jersey Monthly

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