In the front room of the central Wichita home, a five-piece rock band from McPherson plays at decibel levels usually associated with artillery or jet engines. In the dining room, a three-piece group from Switzerland eats vegetarian lasagna while waiting for its chance to perform. Teenagers and young adults attired in everything from fedoras to giant butterfly wings sit on couches or wander around the house.
Mo Barnhart, organizer of the evening's house concert, smiles recalling what she thought three years ago, when a musician friend suggested she host a show in her home.
"What's a house show?" Barnhart remembers thinking. "Now I turn down five to 10 shows a week."
House shows or concerts are a fast-growing segment of the music business. In this do-it-yourself era, when anyone with a computer can record a song or video and put it on the Internet, anyone with a house can stage a concert.
Not that every or even most house concerts are earplug-recommended events for kids too young to get into clubs. In downtown Wichita on the same night as Barnhart's concert, a very different sort of house concert is under way. At least it started out as a house concert, before the demand for seats led organizer Barney Byard to move the show to a former firehouse that's now home to Jet Bar-B-Q.
In the bay where fire engines once stood, about 75 people sit on metal folding chairs listening to Storyhill, an acoustic duo from Montana that specializes in soaring harmonies. Some have brought food or wine. They listen respectfully and applaud enthusiastically after each song.
"Good ambiance and good music," Byard said of the appeal of house concerts, which he and his wife have been holding in their College Hill home for 15 years. "It's a concert. It's not like a bar where people go to drink."
And because of the size of the spaces involved, not like a concert hall either. "It's very intimate," Byard said. "They're this close and there here just to play for you."
A place to play, stay
House concerts have been around for probably as long as there have been homes to play them in. At least one home in Wichita's historic Midtown district features a long front parlor with rounded corners for enhanced acoustics; a music teacher who lived there sang for genteel audiences, according to the home's current owner.
In this decade, the shows have grown rapidly in popularity. Bands and performers use them as stopping points between better-paying gigs and as destinations in themselves.
Byard and Barnhart both turn over all proceeds from the door to the performers. Judging from the donation jar at Barnhart's house, that's not going to amount to much on the night the bands from Switzerland and McPherson appear. Still, Barnhart is feeding them (as well as all anyone else who is hungry) and giving the band members a place to sleep for the night. She and her husband, Breck, who have named their house/venue the Vertical Violet, view their efforts as a way of sharing Christian fellowship for performers and audiences alike.
Members of the Homestories, as the band from Switzerland is called, don't seem to mind the small pay. They came to the United States primarily to play their style of "low-fi pop" at the Nebraska Pop Festival in Omaha and decided to squeeze in as many other gigs while here as possible. Like most out-of-town bands that play at Barnhart's home, they found the Vertical Violet through the Internet (it's booked through the end of this year).
"It's new for us, but we've played some small places," singer-guitarist Ernst David said as audience members squeezed by on their way to the kitchen. "It is smaller, but not by far."
A preferred venue
At the firehouse gig, Storyhill makes out pretty well financially. In addition to pocketing the suggested donations of $15 — which everyone pays — the band stays busy selling and autographing CDs.
Chris Cunningham, one half of Storyhill, said house concerts have become the preferred venue for some touring performers; Storyhill has played them from Seattle to Atlanta. It was well worth the duo's time to fly in to Wichita the day before a scheduled show in Dallas, he said, and not just for the money.
"There's less formality and less distance between you and (the audience)," Cunningham said. "For us, it's about stories that have meaning. Our style is really one you don't hear in clubs. On the other hand, I love playing in dingy, smoky clubs."
Ken and Madeline Norland, who own the Bluestem Bed and Breakfast in Winfield, have brought in musicians from as far away as Los Angeles and New Orleans to play house concerts. There's a suggested donation of $10 and room for 30 people.
"It's just a place for people to gather and listen to great artists," Ken Norland said. "It's a good place for them to stop between gigs and make a little money, sell a few CDs, and we provide a place for them to stay. A lot of times it's a place to recover before the next show."
Marlys Gwaltney of Wichita said she attended the Storyhill show because she was dragged along to see the duo the last time they played a house concert in Wichita — that time, it turns out, in a crowded living room in College Hill. That audience was full of musicians, some of whom jumped up to perform before the main act while others in the audience sang along.
"The vibe in the room was just amazing," Gwaltney said. "As a non-musician, it was just thrilling to be a part of."
If you go
Vertical Violet concerts: For a schedule of upcoming concerts, go to verticalviolet.com.
College Hill Concert series: To get on a mailing list, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bluestem Bed and Breakfast concerts: To get on a mailing list, go to bluestembedandbreakfast.com.c