The sun is slowly setting, families are settling into blankets and lawn chairs. Musicians are setting up speakers on the back deck of a low ranch home of Texas limestone. About 60 people have gathered tonight for Suzanna Choffel, joined by Eldridge Goins on drums. The fourth show in the fourth season of the Wyldwood house concert series is about to begin.
My first ever visit was just at the beginning of May, to see Rod Picott and Amanda Shires. Amy and Andrew Murphy work their network of contacts to book great music into Wyldwood that we may not often have a chance to hear in Austin.
Rod is from Maine; he has shared both school bus rides and songwriting credits with Slaid Cleaves. Two Austin radio stations keep Slaid in regular rotation, so I'd heard some of the songs they collaborated on before. It's easy to learn about the music as Rod introduces each song, gives its name and a brief history of how he came to write it.
Amanda shone on the fiddle (yes, I checked her website, it's a fiddle, although some prefer to call the instrument a "violin"). I am still enchanted with one of their collaborations, "Drive that Devil Out," which you can hear on the myspace site they share.
Two weeks later, I was in the audience again to hear Will T. Massey on guitar and Mike Meadows on his "cajón." Cajón is the Spanish word for a wooden box; it's also a drum, a drum that is, well, a resonate wooden box. Mike turns his whole body into an instrument, perched on this box with jingles tied on his arms and legs, tapping all sides in different ways, making a wide variety of rhythms come to life to complement Will T's soulful folk about angels and demons, love and war.
I've been pondering what makes this venue such a perfect place to hear music. One is, of course, that you can truly hear the music. I asked Will T. how he felt after playing at Wyldwood, and he said that "house concerts are going a long way towards keeping folk music alive."
One Wyldwood patron said "You find good people, good music, professional, the artists are on top of their game, and you can feel good knowing all the money is going directly to the artists." I got a chance to ask Amy and Andrew about the biggest joy they've received from holding four years of shows at their home. They replied that "Our venue creates an intimate connection between the performers and the audience that creates such a different show than you're going to see anywhere else."
It's time for Suzanna and Eldridge to begin. During their introduction, they explain that they have been selected by the state of Texas to perform as ambassadors of the "Texas modern pop sound." Listening, I can understand why they laughed a bit as if thinking "whatever Texas modern pop means …"
Like a lot of music in these post-label days, it doesn't easily fit into any genre. Suzanna's voice has a richer quality to it and the songs have a more grounded, adult viewpoint on love and relationships than I usually associate with "pop" music.
The rhythm and arrangements aren't quite "folk", it's more blues than bluegrass. Her first set is all originals, some old, some new, and many from her current CD, Shudders & Rings. It's definitely hitting some of the same notes and heartstrings that made Norah Jones, Kirsty MacColl, and other female songwriters with a distinctive sound break out from the crowd.
From the audience, my friend Sondra calls her daughter during the set. She holds up the phone to send the music over the airwaves to San Diego, and agrees to buy her a CD too. Today, we are more likely to hear of a new band from our friends and family, and then go seek their music online before we hear them on the radio.
During the break, there are s'mores at the campfire in back. The table at the entrance to Amy and Andrew's backyard has a pickle jar for the suggested donation. The jar filled up quickly, and the stack of sky blue CDs is about half its original size. Suzanna is busy autographing the CDs and taking a moment to talk to each of her fans. Suzanna says that among musicians, the word is: "Oh, you're doing a house concert? Take a lot of CDs with you …" We make plans to meet up after her second show of the night, at one of my favorite downtown venues, Momo's and take our seats for the second set.
The two covers in the second set help show her range. The first is a slow and sultry version of "Ring of Fire" with a distinctly feminine flair. She points out it was actually penned by June Carter Cash and made popular by her husband, Johnny. The other cover is a Brazilian tune, with half the lyrics sung in Portuguese. She closes the set with "Hey, Mister," a tune about the bad-but-beautiful boys who take a dollar and return a dime, the most highly rated song in iTunes from Shudders & Rings.
The Wyldwood is especially kid-friendly. There is ample space for children to run around. The children near the stage respect the silence of the audience without any questions; the children in the back areas run and kick soccer balls without disturbing anyone.
But Wyldwood, technically, could be called a yard concert. Check the rules and expectations for each house concert series before you go. Will kids be comfortable and welcomed? Will you be inside or outside? Should you share potluck-style or take just your own supper? Each house concert is unique to the home of its hosts.
We say a quick thank you to our gracious hosts, Amy and Andrew Murphy, and learn about the next show, the Archibalds, on June 21st. Amy and Andrew update their own website, send out information to an ever-growing mailing list, do the yard work, set out the chairs, build a bonfire, cook hotdogs … all as a labor of love to present good music in an environment that people can share with their families.
Our crew of four is off to Momo's, to see our second Suzanna Choffel gig of the night. We start comparing and contrasting the two gigs. Momo's is a relaxed environment, on a rooftop in downtown Austin; the drinks are good, and we're having fun. But how does the music compare? Mike says that at Wyldwood, "you hear her voice so clearly, and that's amazing. Wow." Sondra points out how the club environment is distracting, so you can't focus on the music. At Wyldwood, Suzanna introduced each song, its name, if it on the current CD or a new song, and something about the inspiration for writing it. At Momo's, each song blends seamlessly into the next.
The contrast between the two presentations is especially strong during Suzanna's song written during a rainstorm. At the house concert, she tells the story of last summer's rare rainy July and we all remembered it together as the song started. With a saxophone and second guitar added to the band, the drip, drip, drop of the raindrops become a powerful rhythm. We agree that some songs are better with the full band, with the hard-driving rhythms and energy. The saxophone brings jazz notes out in the arrangements that the sparse guitar and drums arrangements can't match. However, intimate pieces with delicate harmonies, such as "Stumble," are better at Wyldwood.
Suzanna joins us for a late dinner or very early breakfast after the show. I gain some insight into a new genre of music; audio foreplay, perhaps? "My biggest goal", she says with a laugh, "is for everyone to go home and get laid."
Asked about the difference between the two gigs, she points out they are "literally, day and night." At a venue like Wyldwood, they are all there to see music, and to see you, and you are more exposed. "When people are listening so carefully you become acutely aware of everything you are doing on stage." She describes how she has to be "very in the moment" at a house concert.
At a club, people are talking, watching TV, drinking, meeting each other … they aren't there specifically to see a band, and may hesitate to pay a cover. Sometimes it is difficult just to be heard. However, the upside, playing with the full band allows her to dance more, play around more, and it becomes more interactive.
The three shows I heard this month, Rod Picott, Will T. Massey, and finishing up with Suzanna Choffel were each outstanding in their own way. I am glad I heard about Wyldwood, and look forward to more shows in the intimate setting.