It seemed as if December 10, 2000, would be known as the day the music drowned. Undeterred by the sheets of rain that flooded the streets in Miami-Dade County, Ellen Bukstel Segal was preparing to host a little musical get-together. A graphic designer and the vocalist for the folk band Legacy, Bukstel Segal was the mastermind behind the Sacred Grounds Coffeehouse concert series that ran from 1998 through 2000 at Kendall's Temple Beth Or. On this soggy winter evening, the show would be held in her own house. When her phone rang around 6:00 p.m., the folk booster merrily reassured the concerned caller: "We're still on!"
Boy, were they ever. By 7:00 p.m. the deluge had reduced to a drizzle, 75 of the 90 people who had confirmed reservations braved the elements and showed up at Bukstel Segal's sprawling South Miami-Dade abode to hear North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky in his first South Florida appearance. Surrounding the black sectional couch and grand piano in the recently added living room were numerous rows of plastic chairs, so many that they spilled into the adjacent kitchen. Family photos and folk art perched on shelves; elaborate multicolor masks made with feathers festooned the walls. In front of a coral rock fireplace sat a stool and a microphone on a stand. Former Washington Square soundman Doc Wiley stood off to one side of the room at the controls of a small mixing board.
Dressed in blue jeans, casual shirts, and comfortable shoes, the noticeably over-30 crowd was filled with friends of the homeowner; members of the local folkerati, including WLRN (91.3-FM) radio show host Michael Stock (who helped arrange and promote the show); South Florida Folk Festival bigwigs Robby Greenberg and Bill Messer; and ubiquitous devotee Brian Wolfsohn, who fed everyone samples of his fresh-baked bread. A few of the attendees had journeyed from as far as Key Largo and Melbourne, Florida, to hear the wiry wispy-haired Brodsky strum his acoustic guitar and croon tunes about subjects as diverse as garbage, politics, roadkill, road rage, lost love, lawyers, and, his specialty, baseball (he counts ten songs about the sport in his repertoire). Following a one-hour set, listeners retreated to the vast kitchen to socialize, chat with the artist, sip coffee or soft drinks, and munch on baked goods. Brodsky then played for about 45 minutes, and the decidedly mellow excitement was over before 11:00 p.m.
The enthusiastic audience could have been home staying dry and watching 60 Minutes; instead these folk fanatics preferred to venture out in a virtual monsoon to sit in the middle of someone's living room for a few hours and listen to some odd entertainer that they may have never heard of. Why? It's all a part of the mysterious phenomenon known as the house concert. An alternative for adults who long ago got over spending late nights in smoky clubs, these intimate gatherings feature music, food, and camaraderie (rarely smoking or alcohol) and are occurring with increasing frequency in homes all over the nation. A moderate $10 or $15 charge is donated to the musician (or given to charity) and has helped nurture a circuit wherein an artist can travel from state to state and house to house to earn a modest living performing and selling CDs. Attendees learn about the shows through invitations from hosts or local folk clubs via snail- and e-mail or by consulting Websites. Seating is always limited. Reservations are required, and the address of the home is released only once they're confirmed, since local law-enforcement authorities might not find the event so kosher. Those in the know claim that nearly 500 concert series may be active across the United States. Houseconcerts.com, a Website created by a group of concert givers in Brenham, Texas, lists more than 90 "acoustic listening rooms" across 23 states and Canada.
The recent Brodsky performance marked Bukstel Segal's foray into hosting house concerts. As with most of the shows, an out-of-town artist was the featured act. On future dates, however, Bukstel Segal plans to highlight a few local musicians as well. Her own band, Legacy, and singer Amy Carol Webb are slated for the next date in early February. "I would have done it a much longer time ago, but I didn't have the space," Bukstel Segal explains. "Down here people are starving for this sort of thing. There are so few good venues locally. In a private venue it becomes more like a party." But impressive digs aside, it's no lavish bash; these events definitely are done on the cheap. "There's no way that this is a moneymaking thing," Bukstel Segal admits. "It's strictly to have a good time, promote the artist, and help them out while they're on the road."
Across the county line, in a subdivision called Brookside nestled in the city of Coral Springs, Bob and Saralyn Singer are veterans of the house concert circuit. After moving to Broward County from Dallas, Texas, in 1998, amiable software salesman Bob and his charming wife, Saralyn, set out on their mission to, in Bob's words, "let people know that folk music is alive and well." Their first show, in April 1999, attracted approximately 30 folks, who gathered on the screened-in patio around the amoeba-shape pool to hear South Carolina-based musician Carla Ulbrich belt out her humorous and touching tunes. On that spring evening, the Singer House Concert Series received a baptism of sorts. A sudden downpour threatened to drench all involved, forcing them into the living room of the Singers' high-ceilinged open-plan house.
Offering performances almost every month (except in the summer) since then, the Singers established a Website (www.singerfolkmusic.com) to promote their shows and those of other organizations. They turned their home over to out-of-town acts such as David Roth and Jack Williams, opened their doors to ever-expanding crowds, and have traded sleep for the occasional post-concert late-night jam. Last December's gig, by eclectic quartet Still on the Hill, brought out 90 people. Although the couple admits their house has suffered some wear and tear over the past two years, they happily report that no priceless objects have disappeared, no fights have broken out, and irate neighbors have called the police on only one occasion.
On a Thursday night in 1999, legendary guitarist-singer Williams, whose endless endurance onstage has earned him a reputation as the Bruce Springsteen of folk music, got a bit carried away. He kept playing and playing. Around 11:00 p.m. a police officer knocked on the door and requested that the man on the karaoke machine cease and desist.
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Williams stopped but the music continued at the Singer house, sometimes the site of two shows per month. Aptly named, the Singers are singers themselves and for a while opened for their headliners, providing that local component missing in many house concerts. As hosting duties began to outweigh performing, though, they gave up their shtick.
You see, Singer shows are different: "We do major food," Bob says proudly. Noting the expansive bright kitchen, pots and pans hanging from a rack suspended from the ceiling, and the hundreds of bottles of hot sauce lining the walls above and across from the cupboards, it's obvious someone in the Singer household is a serious cook. That would be Bob, who has taken to whipping up gourmet meals for intermission. Each concert has a culinary theme. In honor of Jack Williams's Southern heritage, Cajun deep-fried turkey and accompaniments were served. A few weeks ago, when the Singers welcomed Gregg Cagno from New Jersey and Dave Nachmanoff from California, East met West as Bob fired up his wok and created a spectacular four-course Chinese meal that included peanut chicken, barbecue pork, and steamed dumplings.
Upcoming gigs at the Singers' will feature Roth again, who will come down from Chicago, and Deidre Flint from Philadelphia, who will have the honor of performing the last show in that house. By March the Singers will have moved to a slightly smaller dwelling in a country club community a few miles south of their current residence. The concerts will not stop. Bob notes that the music -- and the great meals -- will live on in the community's roomy clubhouse, which is equipped with a large kitchen. "The feeling I get in my heart is so full," he said during the Cagno/Nachmanoff gig about putting on shows. "I can't tell you how great it is to do this."
Not everyone agrees. Perhaps it's best the Singers are moving. Around 11:00 on that night, as a few of the 50 concertgoers straggled behind, chatting in the living room, a perky Coral Springs policewoman appeared at the doorstep and asked that the party quiet down. The neighbors had grumbled once again. Chastened yet unfazed, the couple took getting busted with good humor. "She looked like Britney Spears," Saralyn chirped cheerfully about the cop. "I thought she was going to rip off her uniform any second and start dancing around!"