House concert: South Jersey couple makes musicians and audiences feel at home
The show's about to start, and Kathy McHugh makes her way to the front of her family room. "Thank you for coming," the 55-year-old court reporter beams, as the conversations among 50 people sitting on sofas and in rows of chairs subside into an expectant hush.
The show's about to start, and Kathy McHugh makes her way to the front of her family room.
"Thank you for coming," the 55-year-old court reporter beams, as the conversations among 50 people sitting on sofas and in rows of chairs subside into an expectant hush.
"We're excited to present somebody everybody knows, and everybody loves."
Saturday's upbeat, up-close-and-personal concert by the recently married singer-songwriters Jess Klein and Mike June was the latest musical evening McHugh and her husband Steve have hosted at their comfortable home in Audubon.
The McHughs - Steve's a blues guy, and Kathy's all about singer-songwriters - have been presenting two or three shows annually since the mid-2000s, promoting them through word of mouth, posters in coffee shops, and, more recently, postings on social media.
The concerts usually draw between 30 and 50 people to hear performers such as Philly's own Beaucoup Blue, as well as out-of-town acts looking to fill in a night on a tour that's already bringing them within easy driving distance of South Jersey.
Guests typically pay 15 or 20 bucks at the door and bring drinks or dessert; all of the proceeds go to the performers, who are welcome to crash in the McHughs' spare bedroom.
"At first I thought, 'Strangers in my home?' But the artist in me wants to do this," says Steve, 62, a retired teacher who's done some acting locally.
Says Kathy: "We're helping musicians, and we're bringing people together."
With the fragmentation of the popular music business in recent decades, house concerts have become common in communities nationwide.
The shows have a familial, do-it-yourself vibe and offer unknown, rising, and established musicians - particularly those in the rootsy genres often found under the "Americana" umbrella - another way to do what they love to do and make a living, too.
Performers get a chance to share stories and interact with fans in an intimate setting, and to hand-sell recordings and other merchandise ("merch").
"People come to a house concert to hear the music," says June, who grew up in Bergen County and writes and performs edgy, often topical songs. "People come with their friends, so you're expanding your audience. And the money is way better - you don't have to pay overhead."
Klein, whose pretty yet earthy voice is likely familiar to WXPN listeners - she had a hit in 2000 with "Little White Dove" - says house concerts can be "more powerful" than performances in larger spaces.
"I've sung on big stages, and it's awesome," says the Rochester, N.Y., native, who now lives with her husband in Austin, Texas. "But at a house concert, there's no fourth wall [between performer and audience]. Everything's right in your face."
Inexpensive, convenient, and convivial, house concerts also are a way for those of us tired of paying high ticket prices for admission to venues where texting, taking selfies, and talking take precedence over, you know, actually listening to the band.
"You sit in somebody's living room and hear some great music," says Eddie Baker, 60, a carpenter from Blackwood.
"Like a personal concert," adds his pal Mike Beaver, a 60-year-old car dealer who lives in Marlton.
"We're huge Deadheads," explains Janice Burness of Burlington Township as Duncan, her husband, nods. They still enjoy big, jammy outdoor festivals beloved by fellow followers of Grateful Dead-inspired bands, "but we're focusing more and more on smaller [shows] as we get older," says Janice, who has worked with Kathy McHugh as a court reporter.
"It's a more intimate experience, less crowded."
Baby boomers are a prime audience for house concerts, and this one is no exception. But two young women are sitting together near the front of the McHughs' family room.
"My parents love Jess Klein, and I just had to walk a couple of feet to get here," says Carrie Williams, 24, who works in the subscriptions department at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre.
Says Sarah Taylor, 30, a business analyst who grew up next town to the McHughs and now lives in Havertown, "It's great to hear music at your neighbor's house."
During the two-hour show, which breaks to offer folks a chance to sample the home-baked goodies on a table in the kitchen, Klein and June perform solo and together.
Some of their repertoire is autobiographical - "Beautiful Child," Klein's song about her late father, is a standout - but also political, if not overly partisan.