At a time when live music is as commercialized as it’s ever been, I’m glad the house concert hasn’t been sentenced as an antiquated idea in the court of public opinion.
In the history of music we now take for granted, genres like blues, hip-hop and punk rock have a past inexorably linked to DIY performances in humble abodes across America.
Last Saturday, I was invited to one of these shows deep in the heart of Lancaster. Would I soon be moshing and jumping off a haphazard stage? Not this time. Instead, my friends Laura Hemenway and Dennis Russell were hosting a performance of their own original music, along with songwriter and artist Dan Bern. This piece is more about documenting what I didn’t want lost to time. Reviewing this show in a conventional manner would probably ruin what the event was intended for. For those that don’t know, Laura Hemenway and Dennis Russell taught various commercial music classes at Antelope Valley College for many years. Laura taught from 1978-2009 and was also the head of the Commercial Music Department.
Dan has released two dozen albums since his first album on Sony/Work in 1997 and has written songs for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Get Him To The Greek.” He is also a novelist and painter who has works in various museums, including the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. When I got the invite to this super secret event, and I didn’t have an afternoon gig, I couldn’t pass it up.
The soon-to-be concert goers brought food and drink to the party. This set the mood for the events ahead. Chairs lined all sides of the living room. This gig would be sans PA system. Settling in with a pile of guacamole, Laura and Dennis took to the hardwood floor to begin the show.
He played an acoustic guitar while she accompanied, primarily on accordion. They preformed a cross section of original compositions, which covered a wide variety of genres.
During the first folk song, Dennis brought the song down to announce the obligatory sing along section. This was so we could “do it once and get it out of the way.”
I was already laughing. Their portion of the show was filled with great moments like this. There were melodic solos provided by Laura, a fun tribute/anecdote about Dennis talking to Dick Dale on the phone and even more sing alongs. Dan Bern even snuck on harmonica for the closing cover of “Squeeze Box” by The Who. It provided a perfect platform for what was to come.
After a refilling of margaritas and stockpiling tacos and even more guacamole, it was Dan’s time to take the hardwood floor. As he began to play, slowly his aura took over the room.
At the end of his first song, with an acoustic and a harmonica Neil Young-style, Dan began to howl along in pitch like a coyote.
He addressed the audience and said, “I know this is the kind of thing that happens at the end of a set, but I need you to stand up and howl with me.”
The room proceeded to do so. This was the real magic of the show. From the moment he started, he seemed to control the energy of the room to a T. Every song was it’s own unique moment, while also being uniform.
There was no setlist. Dan would pause as he thought of what to do next. You could hear a pin drop. It was just the songwriter connecting straight through to the audience — no infrastructure. In the entire two-and-a-half hours he played, I was not concerned about time. My internal clock had been suspended being in that room.
This was exactly what I needed without knowing ahead of time. Working and playing shows all the time, I’ve never gotten sick of donuts even after I’ve been making them all day.
However, you have to shake the crust off, periodically. Watching Dan was the perfect example of a reduced essence — boiling down the art performance to the purest level possible — the way he controlled the energy and flowed effortlessly from moment to moment, how he utilized the entire space of the house including singing through kitchen, dining room then back around to the living room. It is what every performer should strive to do — stopping time and transforming any space down to a living room, treating everyone in the audience as friends.
It was easily one of the best performances I have been fortunate enough to attend.