Although house concerts have only recently enjoyed a revival in mainstream music culture, live music has been cozying up and “making itself at home” for centuries.
A brief glance at just the last 100 years already reveals the central role that house-concerts have played in the practice and performance of live music – not only as a source of entertainment, but also as a means to push music outside of conventional frameworks, to experiment with genre, and to build and strengthen communities. Whether hosted in the dazzling parlours of 1920s high-society, or amidst the sweat and grime of dust-covered basements, musicians have put just about every room in the house to good use. Allow Low-Fi to take you on a tour-de-chambre through the glamorous, provocative and intoxicating history of house-concerts and their hosts…
The salon: Organ concerts, mid 19th to mid 20th century
Before the advent of recorded music it was popular for wealthy, upper-class households to adorn their mansions with enormous brass-pipe organs – an excessive installment that would nonetheless likely have blended quite subtly into a parlor of polished marble, luscious palms and sparkling chandeliers. The organ was convenient for hosting parties as the instrument was loud enough to swell and saturate the high-ceilinged chambers with orchestral-sounding music without necessitating more than one performer. Families such as the Vanderbilts, Tiffanys, and Rockefellers all had organs at home – some of which rivaled the grandeur of those in Cathedrals – and would invite prominent and prestigious organists to come play private concerts for their guests. It was also common, however, for these families to pay little mind to any actual “legitimate” organ music, in favor of requesting arrangements of popular music.
Archer Gibson was a famous organist and a favorite amongst millionaire families in the first decades of the 20th century. Listen to his fluttering and whimsical “A Song of Springtime” below.
The bedroom: Harlem blues, 1920s
A couple decades later America found itself in the stranglehold of the prohibition alcohol-ban; a context that proved, paradoxically, to give rise to a rip-roaring and boisterous underground nightlife in New York City. So-called “buffet-flats” began popping up all over Harlem, providing black nightlife with hideaways in which to indulge in after-hours fun whilst remaining safe from police and whites. The apartments were residential flats set aside for travellers or shows that, in the early am after the night-clubs shut, would open up and merrymakers tumble inside for all kinds of illicit entertainment. Amidst the sex, booze, drugs and gambling, guests were treated to drag shows, risque dance performances and of course, live music. Blues concerts were often hosted in the flats, but the pianists would have to play using the soft-pedal to keep from being too loud and risk getting busted… hence the title of blues legend Bessie Smith’s 1925 record, “Soft Pedal Blues”.
Bessie Smith, one of the hottest blues singers in the 20’s, was said to have followed her drag queen fans to parties at buffet flats after her shows. Have a listen to the legend herself below.
There’s a lady in our neighbourhood who runs a buffet flat,
And when she gives a party, she knows just what she’s at!
You give a dance, say Friday night, that was to last till one,
But when the time was almost up, the fun had just begun!
But she walks into the room, and yells to the crowd,
Have all the fun, ladies and gentlemen, but don’t make it too loud!
The garage: Garage rock, 1960s
“Garage rock” emerged in the mid-1960s as a kind of unruly and “less sophisticated” little sister of rock and roll. The genre was named very literally after the performers reputations for playing and rehearsing in their families garages, and for being too amateur for a more professional setup. Teenagers longing to escape the constraints of white-picket, middle-class suburbia could find solace in the raw, expressive and energetic music, as well as in the concrete comfort of the isolated garage space. The garage was a bunker that not only practically acted as a kind of sound-booth that allowed bands to play loud music, but also as a safe-space in which to express individuality and exercise the frustration of feeling trapped in the stifling status-quo of middle-class American suburbia.
The Sonics were an American band from Pacific Northwest, known for pioneering the garage rock sound and influencing later punk bands like Nirvana. You can check out a sample of their sound below.
The recreation room: The birth of Hip-hop, 1970s
Jamaican-American musician DJ Kool Herc is known as “the father of hip hop” for his role in helping originate the genre in the early 1970s. It’s said that it all started at his sister’s house-party one summer night in 1973, in their apartment building in the Bronx, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. They rented the building’s recreation room for a little over 20 dollars and sent out hand-written invitations to all their friends – Herc’s sister recalls how she “wrote out the invites on index cards, so all Herc had to do was show up. With the party set from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., our mom served snacks and dad picked up the sodas and beer from a local beverage warehouse.” At the party Herc unveiled a new DJ-ing technique called the Merry-Go-Round, whilst his friend Coke La Rock made history with another musical innovation called rapping.
Crack open some beers, serve up some of your moms best snacks and put this song on to bring the DJ Kool Herc-house party straight to your own home.
The basement: Punk, 1970s
The basement suffers a bad reputation for being a place for the unwanted… you know things like dust-covered boxes, unused sports-equipment, long-legged spiders and your residentiary house-spirit. Despite, or maybe even because of this, the basement has long served as the ideal hideaway for delinquent youth and, in particular, as the perfect venue for the raucous and unruly scene of punk rock shows. DIY punk bands started performing basement shows in the early 70s both because it was economically practical, but also because the home concert was ideologically aligned with the punk spirit – cutting out the commercial middle-man and bringing people together just for the music, and for the strengthening and celebrating of communities and cultural exchange.
Basement shows, which are still live and kicking in the North American punk scene today, are infamous enough to have been written about by several bands, including Deer Hunter’s “Basement Scene” and Lifetime’s “Theme Song for a New Brunswick Basement Show”.
We’ll send you off with The Devil Is Electric’s “It Sounds Better In The Basement”. Because like, it totally does.
Check out Low-Fi concerts to browse all of our up-coming house concerts and talented artists. Sign-up to get tickets, or even to host your very own house-concert!
All the beautiful illustrations are by the magical and talented Charlotte Slot.
- “House concert.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Feb. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_concert#History.
- Oron, Aryeh. “Archer Gibson (Organ, Arranger).” Archer Gibson (Organ, Arranger) – Short Biography, Bach Cantatas, 2009, www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Gibson-Archer.htm.
- “Posts about Prohibition on Digital Harlem Blog.” Digital Harlem Blog, 2009, https://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/tag/prohibition/.
- Devi, Debra. “Bessie Smith: Music’s Original, Bitchinest Bad Girl.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 25 Apr. 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/debra-devi/bessie-smith_b_1450477.html.
- “Garage rock.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Mar. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garage_rock#Social_milieu_and_stylistic_features
- “Space and Place: 1960s Garage Rock from the Pacific Northwest.” Music, Art, Culture and Politics, 10 Feb. 2013, https://genespencer.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/space-and-place-1960s-garage-rock-from-the-pacific-northwest/
- “1520 Sedgwick Avenue.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Feb. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1520_Sedgwick_Avenue
- Batey, Angus. “DJ Kool Herc DJs his first block party (His sister’s birthday) at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 June 2011, www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/13/dj-kool-herc-block-party.
- “Basement show.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basement_show