“The best gig ever,” was how bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Aaron Jonah Lewis described his recent concert at the Edinburgh home studio of photographer Douglas Robertson, who currently hosts up to three house concerts a week. “Can we move in?” was how another US visitor, Seattle based musician Cahalen Morrison reacted after a lively night chez Robertson with his playing partner Eli West.
A Scottish folk musician who has played several house concerts in recent years and is enthusiastic about them is Dave Francis, one half of the duo The Cast with his wife, Mairi Campbell.
“We’ve played a few now,” he says, “and in terms of intimacy and direct communication, they’re hard to beat.”
In these economically straitened times, when some venues have closed down and a full-blown concert ticket can stretch the budget, private house performances, for which the punter pays a “donation” of perhaps a tenner, all of which goes to the performer, are proving an interesting alternative.
Robertson, whose home gigs include visiting musicians from the United States (where house concerts are much more common) as well as home-grown folk and jazz acts, started running them after he developed his airy home and studio (a former Co-op store), the basement of which had already been used by bands for rehearsals. “I went to see a Chris Smither gig in a really scabby place in the Cowgate. And I thought, ‘God, I could put this guy on at my place. It would be much nicer.’” As it turned out, Smither was booked up, so Robertson got in touch with the Nashville-inclined Edinburgh singer-songwriter Dean Owens, who had promoted the Smither gig and who, ironically enough, had been trying to get in touch with him to ask whether he’d ever thought of mounting a house concert.
Robertson has never looked back, with forthcoming guests including the Bevvy Sisters this Friday and jazz saxophonist Martin Kershaw on Saturday (for details, e-mail [email protected])
In St Andrews, meanwhile, Karen Haggis and her husband started running house concerts when their musical children were young and, Haggis explains, the bands they wanted them to experience tended to play in licensed premises which wouldn’t accommodate minors. Their first house concert featured The Cast, and they have since hosted other folk acts including the Outside Track and harp duo Sileas, jazzers Phil Bancroft and Mario Caribe and classical music from the Raeburn Quartet and cellist William Conway.
Currently taking a break until next year, Haggis agrees that house concerts create the most intimate performance situation imaginable. “The audiences love it, and the musicians love it.”
Elsewhere, Highland music organiser Rob Ellen runs regular house concerts in a Strathpeffer coffee shop and is the Scottish contact for the European House Concert Hub (see www.medicinemusic.co.uk), while in Ardgour, singer and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy and her husband Nick Turner run house concerts at their Watercolour Music studio (www.watercolourmusic.co.uk), recent guests having included the Swedish band Väsen.
Until the 18th century, of course, secular “art” music would have been cultivated largely in the homes of the well-to-do – Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland and the second-oldest in Britain, didn’t open until 1763.
Mind you, there are stranger things than having notable musicians cutting loose in your living room: Dean Owens, with regular collaborators the Erskine Strings, last week played a gig in the cafe of the Pentland Plants garden centre outside Edinburgh. So might greenhouse concerts be the next big thing?