Check out the audience next time you’re at a classical recital. It’s a fair bet they will be actively listening. There will be no background chatter, no clatter of glasses and cups or the hiss of a cappuccino machine. Classical musicians and house concert performers expect and receive 100% audience attention.
So it was at a private house concert we went to last Sunday to listen to Joel Woods play classical guitar pieces and a difficult Bach composition on a 150-year-old mandolin. The concert was held on the veranda of an old Queenslander and was by invitation, only as the host had a limited number of chairs. The hosts were a little nervous as they’d not held a house concert before and were worried about road noise, birds and other neighbourhood distractions (none of which mattered one bit).
On Monday night we ducked down to the UpFront Club in Maleny’s main street, a now-ex watering hole and music venue. The sad but inevitable occasion was “The Last Hurrah” – the final Monday night blackboard music night before the venue closed, after a lengthy financial struggle to stay afloat.
A local woman I met in the street yesterday described the music on the night as “fantastic”. I’ll admit, having since watched a few dodgy smart phone videos, that did appear to be the case: if you were in the front two rows, that is.
Sorry, with 150 people milling about outside the venue and on the footpath and standing room only inside, I could not hear much music at all.
I will say this – one’s preference for listening to live music does change as you age (and get hearing aids).
Nonetheless, this was situation normal for the UpFront Club on a Monday night where people gathered to eat, drink and talk while amateurs, semi-professionals and the occasional professional musician soldiered on through their 15-minute sets. As someone commented, people used to listen but the drinkers and the ‘maggers’ got the upper hand.
(For our foreign edition readers, a ‘magger’ is someone who chatters for the sake of chattering).
Generations of Australians have grown up listening to live music in this way (as background to social conversation, usually in a bar where amber fluid flows and conversations become shouting matches). The PA gets turned up to combat the rising volume of human conversation until a point is reached when the audience gives up and heads for the dance floor or the door.
The Talkers vs the Listeners
This is a universal theme in licensed venues. We were in Toowoomba years ago and saw a poster advertising songwriter Penelope Swales at an Irish bar. We went along, fighting our way through the Saturday night throng and high volume hub-bub.
“This must be the wrong place,” I shouted. “She’s not here.” But she was there, tucked away in the corner on a tiny stage with barely room to swing a guitar. We got very close, but it has to be said the intimate impact of a Swales performance was lost. Penelope writes and sings long involved songs, usually introduced by a story of equal length. The next time we saw Penelope I mentioned we’d quietly dubbed it ‘the gig from hell’. “Oh I remember that,” she said. “I got paid $300.”
House music rules!
When we lived in Brisbane in the 1990s, we started promoting a few acoustic concerts at various venues, hiring sound gear and booking emerging artists of the time like Women in Docs and Ohneatasweata. Some concerts were financially successful and some were not, mainly because we stuck to a commitment to pay the artists an agreed fee.
In the mid-1990s, we moved to a larger house in Brisbane – big enough for a house concert, someone said. So we took a punt and asked Margret RoadKnight if she’d perform.
We set up the lounge with as many chairs as we owned, then borrowed others from friends and neighbours as the bookings came in. So on a humid March night, not knowing what to expect, 60 people turned up to hear a set of songs from us (The Goodwills) and then an hour or so from Margret. We performed unplugged, so as a matter of course, the audience paid rapt attention. You would not have heard a pin drop because we had wall to wall carpets, but you get the point.
We were enthused; it cost us next to nothing to stage the concert and Margret got a decent fee, so it didn’t take us long to start planning the next one. We had an ever-expanding email list, so used that to promote a series of concerts with guests including Women in Docs, Penelope Swales, Rough Red, Rebecca Wright, Cloudstreet, Kath Tait and Phil Garland.
The concept is of great value to narrative songwriters, acapella groups or instrumentalists who revel in the rare circumstance of playing acoustic instruments on a hardwood floor (i.e. Celtic harpist Andy Rigby and friends in Maleny last year).
There is a place for an UpFront Club vibe – percussive dance groups revel in the noisy, packed room environment. But it is no place to listen to a songwriter with stories to tell. Renowned Irish songwriter Kieran Halpin strolled into the Monday night chalkboard one evening in winter, circa 2007. He and his family were travelling around Australia in a camper van and making contacts for future tours. He got up, introduced only as ‘Kieran’, sung his three songs, sold a couple of CDs to people at the back who were actually listening, and later pronounced the gig “Pretty good, all things considered.”
“I won the $30 and got a slice of pizza,” he told me afterwards. “It was only $15 to stay at the showgrounds so yeah, it was a good gig.”
Yet the man who wrote “All the Answers”, “Nothing to Show for it All” and “Angel of Paradise” came and went, largely ignored by the Monday night maggers. What they may have missed was a man who has recorded 18 albums and had songs covered by artists including Ilse De Lange, Vin Garbutt, Dolores Keane, Tom McConville, Niamh Parsons, The Battlefield Band and Brisbane singer John Groome.
It would be fair to point out A Bit of Folk on the Side (a monthly folk club) operated at the club for nine years without any amplification and people by and large did the right thing, so it is possible.
Guilty as charged, mate
“You’re a bit precious about that, mate” a young business acquaintance told me once, explaining why he wouldn’t come to a house concert. “I like to stand at the bar and have a few and I’ll listen if the music grabs me, otherwise I’ll talk to my mates.”
Others might say if your music is good enough, people will pay attention, but as the ‘Kieran’ anecdote shows, that is not always the case.
The Guardian’s Indie Professor (anthropologist Wendy Fonarow), analyses this topic in some detail (see link) but I’m tempted to end with her most pertinent quote:
“Ultimately, talking at shows is a bit like watching someone play with their smartphone. It’s irritating whenever it isn’t you.”