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Whereas most of the house shows Gardner attended before relocating were staid affairs, he and his coconspirators fostered a raucous atmosphere that had much in common with punk rock's longstanding embrace of the "play wherever" mindset.
"House shows are a little dull," observes Gardner. "Ours were younger; it was more of a party. People would be bringing their own drinks. A lot of bourbon was consumed. For the Drive-By Truckers, we told people to bring tents, and they camped out and played music until the sun came up. I could book almost anyone, and it would sell out in a day or less. It's kind of every club owner's dream: to book good music and have lots of people show up."
As in St. Louis, however, those club owners didn't begrudge Gardner his dream. "The reason why we started it is nobody was booking this kind of music, so nobody really cared," says Gardner. "Eventually it got to the point where we raised awareness of some of these artists, and they'd play one of the clubs in the future."
To this end, Cockrell credits that '05 gig at Wood's house for greasing the skids for prime club dates he might otherwise not have landed.
"That St. Louis show was really special; it really helped substantiate us," says Cockrell. "When we came through the next time, there were 200-plus people at Blueberry Hill, and there's no way that would have happened had we not played that house concert."
Seattle indie rocker David Bazan is generally regarded as the reigning king of the house-show circuit, playing at least 80 living rooms per year. Bob Andrews is the man whose company books them. Over dinner recently, Bazan and Andrews sit next to each other at Seattle's Lost Lake Diner, a converted bathhouse that now serves as a 24-hour bar and eatery specializing in hearty American fare.
Bearded and balding, the bearlike Bazan orders a short glass of Fernet while Andrews summons a root beer. "People are more civilized and present at house shows," says Bazan, perhaps better known for his work as Pedro the Lion's frontman. "No one's got their phone out videoing the show, and there's no pee on the seat in the bathroom. You're performing in a place where someone really gives a shit about it, and people act accordingly."
Ironically, Bazan is about to play a club show on the night he's joined in the diner by Andrews. Bazan, who's prone to mellower compositions when playing alone, moonlights in a high-volume quartet called Overseas with fellow house-show aficionado Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk). It's for acts like these that clubs still hold all the cards.
"One thing about a club is you can bring a big, loud show, and that can be really beautiful and compelling," says Bazan. "You have volume limits to house shows."
Andrews is a family man who hastily agreed to act as road manager for Overseas after his predecessor abruptly bailed. In 1992 he moved to St. Louis and served as Uncle Tupelo's tour manager until the groundbreaking alt-country band broke up ("the explosion," Andrews calls it) two years later. Andrews went on to do the same job for Jeff Tweedy's spinoff group, Wilco, before quitting in 1996 to help form Undertow Music, a management company that got into the living-room biz by "total accident."
Bazan had just cut his debut LP as a solo artist in early 2009 and was waiting for his label, Barsuk, to put it out. "Someone said [Bazan] should play living-room shows, and we booked 30 shows through fans offering to host," says Andrews, who now lives in Champaign, Illinois. "They sold out in a week, and we said, 'Oh, this could be awesome.'"
It has been: Undertow now has a full-time staffer devoted to booking house shows for its stable of artists. The same staffer handles virtually all organizational details for those offering up their homes, save for unlocking the front door.
Another advantage to house shows, says Bazan, is the ability to reach smaller markets.
"When you're playing club shows, there are 80 to 100 viable markets to play in the U.S.," he explains. "With house shows, that number jumps to 500 to 1,000. You can play as many towns as there are 50,000 people that live in the vicinity. That's the thing that really makes it work, especially for someone like me who's trying to tour a lot. In 2012, I did eighteen weeks of house shows — that's like 100 or so in every nook and cranny of the United States."
"It's incredible that I can play Medford, Oregon — towns where it wouldn't justify rolling up and getting a hotel, where the overhead may not meet the income from a show," seconds John Vanderslice, a veteran San Francisco indie rocker who just completed his first Undertow-booked living-room tour. "In general, you're going to make more money. The economics of me taking out my 2003 Corolla versus a fifteen-passenger van; getting multiple hotel rooms; playing a tour manager. Also the unforeseen costs of keeping up gear — the preparation for those tours — it's just so much bulkier in every way. I'm a week away from leaving on a six-week club tour. It's so expensive to get out that I might as well stay out. With living-room tours, you can do fly-ins and piece them up however you want. It's so flexible."