By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Road-weary and cash poor, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell just needed a comfortable place to play — and stay — in St. Louis in July 2005. Or at least that's how Cary remembers it.
"I'm pretty sure something either got canceled or we were really broke and didn't want to have a day off," says Cary, a velvet-voiced North Carolinian whose closest brush with widespread fame came when she helped form Whiskeytown alongside Ryan Adams. "It's a little hazy."
Cockrell, who was touring with Cary and a trio of supporting players behind the duo's Begonias album, recalls things a bit differently. "Rick reached out and asked if we'd be willing to do a concert there."
Either way, "Rick" was Rick Wood, a long-time board member of KDHX's (88.1 FM) annual country and Americana celebration, Twangfest. And "there" was the house in Clayton he shared with his wife and kids. Midweek he'd circulated an e-mail invitation to several of his most music-savvy acquaintances, who in turn forwarded it to theirs. Ultimately some 50 people showed up at Wood's house on a sunny Sunday evening, half-racks of Pabst in hand along with a suggested $20 donation for the band.
It was the first time the Woods had ever hosted a show in their living room, which opened to the kitchen and backed up to a sliding glass door leading to the patio. "We didn't really know what we were doing," concedes Rick. Prior to the show, Cary relaxed out back while Cockrell held court on the couch as a baseball game played on TV. It wasn't clear how many people realized who he was as he casually commented on the action, an armchair Tim McCarver of sorts, albeit of higher pitch and fleeter intellect.
The band assembled its gear on the living room's area rug, and the audience closed rank around them, sitting or standing where they could. Amplification wasn't necessary as the crowd was right there. Cockrell, who recently played before 15,000 fans in Nashville with his breakout band Leagues, insists that "it's scarier playing a living room with 50 people. It's so much more intimate. There's an energy that takes over — you and them. It's a roller-coaster ride."
"You feel a little like you're naked on the first day of school because you're practically singing in somebody's face," adds Cary. "Then there's the whole sensation of singing without microphones. It takes some getting used to, but it's awesome. It's just so immediate and intimate in a way a club show really can't be."
After the performance, Cary and Cockrell spent the night (separately, as the pair were never an offstage item) in the bedrooms of the Wood children. The ones decked out in superhero pillowcases.
"There were a lot of less comfortable accommodations than that [on that tour]," says Cary, laughing. "I remember the slightly off sensation of kicking the kids out of their rooms. I remember when I was a kid, I wouldn't want some strange musician sleeping in my room."
It was a lucrative concert as well. Without having to split the door with the venue — the Woods declined to profit from the venture — and with a donation amount that far outstripped what they would have charged at a club at the time, they left with a handsome profit. Add in the peculiarly robust merchandise sales and free room and board and, as Cary puts it, "You can really make some money."
"I've never played a house concert where all the seats aren't full," says Cary, for whom such shows are now a regular part of any tour. "It's almost always a guaranteed $1,000 gig or more, and with club shows, guarantees are an elusive creature. Filling up clubs is harder and harder these days. I find the new music business model kind of daunting."
She's not alone. While house shows — or living-room shows, in the current vernacular — have doubtless been around since the first caveman learned to bang a pair of rocks together and wail cacophonously, they've crystallized into a highly sophisticated and more fiscally prudent alternative to playing clubs and more traditional performance spaces. And while such venues are hardly a dying breed, they've shrewdly taken to partnering with the Woods of the world, collaboratively luring artists who might otherwise be inclined to bypass cities where they might only secure a lone and unpredictable club gig.
After hosting Cockrell and Cary, Rick Wood became hooked on the at-home template and has hosted a show each month ever since. He has become such a trusted curator that his concerts, which now boast a capacity of 80 spectators, sell out even if the act is not well-known, making him a sort of Coachella writ small. Wood is now able to offer artists guarantees ranging from $500 to $2,500 (soliciting a suggested donation of $15 to $35 per attendee, depending upon the act), and he has even landed a beer sponsor. Local microbrew Schlafly donates four cases per show in exchange for the right to hang a banner behind the band.
"The environment at Rick's place is really artist-friendly," says Steve Pohlman, owner of Off Broadway, the stalwart roots-rock venue south of downtown St. Louis. "It's always a sellout. He's curated a large audience who trusts his judgment musically. That allows him to do what, in a perfect world, we'd all do."