I have no idea what she is singing but the tears are rolling down my face. It’s a Polish song of love and longing, and Alice Zawadzki is singing it about a metre from my face. It’s intense, intimate and life enriching. It’s part of a house gig, and I’m hosting it in a room about three metres square.
House gigs have been popular in North America and Germany for decades, but it’s only now they’re starting to pique the interest of bands and hosts in the UK. With the demise of live music venues and drinking culture ruining many a gig as the bore at the back loudly jaws his way through a favourite song, people are starting to realise that going in is the new staying out.
The beauty of the gigs is the size of them. They’re pin-drop quiet, unless a singalong is invited by the musicians, meaning you can actually hear the music properly. They’re an emotional exchange – a challenge or something to be really relished by bands used to raucous venues and being partly ignored, even at paid and ticketed events. They’re mainly acoustic, which means there’s nowhere to hide – for musicians or the audience. You have no choice but to connect. And when that happens, it’s magical.
Brendon Massei, AKA Viking Moses, agrees. Signed to Alan McGee’s label Poptones in the early noughties, and based in Baltimore in the USA, he now tours the world playing gigs of all sizes, including house gigs. “I love the raw intimacy of house shows, and the barriers that are broken down between performers and audiences,” he says. “There’s this vulnerability that everyone shares, and this purity too, when a private space is opened to friends and strangers on behalf of a cultural exchange or amusement. Instantly, it can become a sacred event, unique and irreplicable.” He’s played my house twice now, once en route to Scotland, and once en route to Japan.
I started hosting them as a way of hearing live music while living in a place with poor evening transport links, no car and hamstringing childcare issues. Spending my life up to my 30s in major cities, I really missed being able to hear incredible live music. When singer-songwriter Neil McSweeney namechecked the concept of house gigs at a concert he played on the Kent-based arts venue lightship LV21, a flashbulb went off in my head. A quick google search put me in touch with some house gig websites, and I was off.
On the first site I tried, I found a Kent-based band called Arcelia, who specialise in beautifully observed songs with grown-up, soulful three-part harmonies. One band member has been in household name shows and bands his whole life and another is a professional songwriter, but they still choose to perform in houses. Teresa from the band says: “We were approached by some seasoned house gig hosts to play a house gig in Faversham and it was one of the best gigs we’ve ever had. We are now well and truly hooked. You meet wonderful, diverse people who have gathered together with the one aim of listening to live music in a relaxed, shared space. You catch each breath and hear every subtlety. We particularly love the interaction between the audience and ourselves, as we encourage people to chat to us in between songs, ask questions and share thoughts.”
Essentially (and legally), house gigs are private parties. Due to the size of most houses, attendee lists are small, and invite only (which avoids public liability insurance issues). Guests cough up a donation rather than pay for a ticket (which avoids licensing issues) and all money goes to the band. Hosts normally provide a meal or snacks of some sort, and guests bring a bottle. I lay on hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks and jacket potatoes mid gig – a lazy way to win comfort food nostalgia points with guests, who willingly bring toppings to share as well as their booze of choice. They’re minimum effort to make (two hours on a mid-range heat in a real oven) but not something people can often be bothered to cook properly for themselves. They make such an impact that MG Boulter had quite an in-depth chat about them on the next radio show he appeared on.
Spuds aside, I’ve yet to encounter a downside to hosting a house gig. There’s a cross-fertilisation across peer groups and their wider friendship circles which forges new friendships and a sense of community. Body, mind, ears and soul get fully nourished. And in a world where venues are closing down willy nilly, it gives bands somewhere new and exciting to play, and for money. Once, it was the kind of thing to be given away as a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a TV or radio station. But now, you can set it up yourself. And I’d thoroughly recommend doing so.
Tips for getting going
- Facebook is your friend. Set up a facebook event page, or a facebook group for your gigs.
- You can keep lists on this page – who is coming, who has paid, who is bringing what dish.
- Invite your friends, and space permitting, invite them to invite their friends.
- Beg or borrow chairs (or ask people to bring their own, or cushions to sit on). I borrowed mine from a friendly local church until I invested in some cheap IKEA folding dining chairs.
- Tell your neighbours. Invite your neighbours. Always think of your neighbours.
- Don’t amplify too much (or at all) to avoid annoying your neighbours. Quiet really is the new loud.
- Ask for a suggested donation to avoid licensing issues.
- Set up a paypal.me page to collect donations in advance. On-the-night no-shows can financially cripple small gig musicians.
- Encourage people to carpool or pick up the acts from stations on your facebook page – new friends get made!
- Feed people, but don’t make it too complicated. Baked potatoes are super easy cooked en masse, or fire up the slow cooker for a curry or stew with rice or pasta.
- Get people to show off and share their cooking skills by bringing dishes along for a potluck.
- About 45 minutes of music, 45 minutes of food, and 45 minutes of music works well as a schedule.
- Agree a minimum number of people who will attend to ensure your acts earn enough money on the night.
- Agree in advance who picks up any shortfall in expected guest donations.
- Gently remind people a week or two in advance – people can treat house gigs as pub gigs and you can end up with an emptyish house and a very poor musician.
- Encourage acts to sell merchandise.
- Make sure guests bring the right money for any purchases. Albums often sell for a tenner but bands tend not to bring a float.
All the bands mentioned in this article are happy to be approached about performing at house gigs and can be contacted through their websites.