Who knew? In 2004, we’d never heard of house concerts, and certainly never thought we’d be hosting them and getting to hobnob with some of the best Canadian folk artists in our very own venue! Thanks to the incredible energy and generosity of the folk community, a whole new world opened up to us and to our town.
That year Ted and I took in the Gordon Lightfoot tribute concert at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, and fell in love with the guitar work of Terry Tufts. We took home a CD that we proceeded to wear out, and sent an email through Terry’s website asking him to let us now when he’d be in our area so we could hear more. A month or so later, he dropped us a note to say he was playing at a house concert in Scarborough.
We were baffled. Was this a private event? A fund raiser? Would we be crashing someone’s party? I contact Lillian Wauthier, whose Fiddles and Frets group was hosting the concert, and reserved 2 comfy chairs for a paltry $15.00 each. In that way on a May night in 2004 we found ourselves driving from our home in Milton across the north end of Toronto to Scarborough to join 40 other people on an assortment of chairs pulled from every room of an old farmhouse, and subsequently enthralled by a 90 minute long concert filled with stories and original music. At the end of the evening, we asked Lillian how an artist of Terry’s calibre could possibly afford to play in someone’s living room for $600, and what was involved in setting up this kind of entertainment. Unlike people who want to keep a good thing to themselves, Lillian shared a wealth of information with us and encouraged us to try hosting a house concert ourselves. (After that evening we discovered an incredibly giving attitude in the folk community in general – from advice on an online forum called MaplePost, to phone calls of encouragement, to personal contacts. Dealing with “folkies” completely re-energized me!) When we asked how we’d be able to contact artists and convince them to come out to Milton, Lillian asked if we had a space big enough to hold a concert. While our house was too small, our town did have a beautiful old stone registry office that had been converted into a meeting hall, and we thought that might work. (Side note: I later discovered that the Hugh Foster Hall had once been the county registry office, and was the room in which my parents took their oath of Canadian citizenship. In November of 2004 we used the hall for the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary.) It only held 60 people, which would mean that everyone could get up close and really hear the music without any amplification. Lillian suggested that folk musicians had a lot in common with the baseball players in Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come”. Actually, she offered to get me registered on MaplePost, put me in touch with the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, and said that once word got out that I had a venue, I wouldn’t have to go looking for artists – they’d find me.
We went home brimming with ideas and on a real high from the great music that night. Within a week, I’d contacted our town hall to find out when the registry hall was available, e-mailed Terry Tufts to ask whether he’d honour us by being our first concert, and convinced the local Milton paper (The Canadian Champion) to do a story on the house concert concept. We paid for the hall rental, put up signs, canvassed friends to buy tickets and cajoled them into telling their friends too, registered a website called “Just Milton Folks”, printed 2 T-shirts with our new name and wore them everywhere we went in town, enlisted local businesses to pass the word, found a sponsor to provide us with Fair Trade Coffee for intermissions, and got ready for our first ever house concert on September 24, 2004.
The night was absolute magic. It turned out that the hall’s barrel ceiling and solid limestone walls created great acoustics, and that Miltonians were ready to embrace folk music anew. Terry got a standing ovation, sold lots of CDs and, by the strength of his incredible performance, convinced people to come back for more.
We never looked back. In 2004/2005 in addition to Terry we hosted James Gordon, Katherine Wheatley, and Dave Hadfield and his band; all musicians that I personally loved and wanted to share with our friends and the community. Every concert was fantastic: James had us laughing and crying almost simultaneously, and showed off the hall’s acoustics with a song on his tin whistle in addition to piano, harmonica and guitar; Katherine enthralled the audience with her pure clear voice; and Dave’s stories, accompanied by the harmonies of his back-up singers and the fantastic fiddle of Jerry Levine were an inspiring finale to our first year.
It was a little scary at times. Although every concert sold out – 50 seats paid for – it often was not until the last minute. Many of the friends we had coerced into attending the first concert didn’t return, but those who did inevitably brought friends and neighbours, and in that way the word spread and a core audience was built. That first year we worried about whether the ticket sales would be enough to cover expenses and still give our performers a decent return for the talent they were sharing (we never kept a penny except the venue costs and SOCAN fees). Despite the initial positive reception to our house concerts, as we got ready for season two, pre-paying the hall rental and signing performers’ contract guarantees, we wondered whether people would come back for a second year or whether we were simply going to have some really expensive personal concerts!
As it turned out, within 24 hours of our last concert in June, we’d sold 17 season’s tickets to the 5 concerts planned for the next year, even though the first one wasn’t until September. After the June concert I had an email that read: Having attended all four of the concerts offered this season I would like to thank you for all the hard work you put in to these events. Please know that your efforts did not go unnoticed. This past September I was a bit of a Folk Music virgin. Canadian folk music to me didn’t go much further than Sylvia and Ian Tyson. My, how my eyes have been opened to the wealth of fabulous musicians who are so passionate about their music. What a wonderful group the folk music community seems to be. Thank you for introducing all of this to me and for expanding my CD library to now include more fabulous music. If Terry, James, Katherine and Dave were any indication, I can’t wait for next year’s line up.
I couldn’t wait either. In year 2 we planned to share Nancy White, Gregg Lawless, Jory Nash, Joel Fafard, and Heather Dale with our audiences. There was a growing list of artists that I already had in mind for a third year if it turned out that we could keep going (that pre-booking part of the concept did have Ted a little scared), and we were discovering that presenting concerts was a great way to get free CD’s in the mail from musicians who wanted to come and play, which meant that we kept falling in love with more great talent that we wanted to share. People sometimes asked me what was involved in setting up the concerts and, as Lillian did with us, in addition to sharing our process I always encouraged them to spread the music. Sharing it was a huge part of what made listening to it so enjoyable.
As I began… who knew?