Kerry Kriseman knew how it worked.
She and her husband, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, had been invited to house concerts for years, but the timing never worked with their busy schedules. Then in 2018, a friend on Snell Isle hosted a private show by Chasing Lovely, a folk-singing sister duo from Atlanta. So impressed were the Krisemans that the mayor invited them to City Hall the next day. And then the Krisemans started talking about hosting a house concert of their own.
“We thought, Why not? Let’s do it,” Kerry said. “It feels really good to support people who are really good at their craft.”
House concerts aren’t a new phenomenon, but more people every year keep discovering and embracing the concept of hosting intimate, fuss-free performances by national artists, surrounded by friends, family and the odd stranger here and there. Tampa Bay, in particular, has become a hub of house concert activity, thanks in part to the St. Petersburg-based Listening Room Network, which has booked shows nationally since 2006 and curated the local Listening Room Festival each spring since 2012.
“What I see at house concerts is people rediscovering a love for live music,” said Listening Room Network founder Fran Snyder, who began building his network after spending years touring the country as a singer-songwriter. “This is such a novel experience, it seems so natural that it should be common. But for most people, when they go to a house concert, it’s like a light bulb goes off. They didn’t know it was possible to enjoy music in this way.”
Snyder’s organization is one of several that helps connect artists with prospective venue hosts, vetting both and making sure they each know what they’re getting into. Once a show is booked, the show is posted online with the time and address hidden until you RSVP and are invited.
Because artists typically play as acoustic solo, duo or trio acts, a huge living room or backyard is not necessary and the overhead tends to be low. Money from tickets generally goes straight to the artists, with hosts or guests providing their own food and drinks, potluck-style.
The shows often appeal to people who, for a variety of reasons, are tired of shelling out a ton of money to see a big show in a sprawling, crowded, noisy arena.
“I’m a single mom, so taking three kids to the Jonas Brothers is like $500 to $700 a night,” said Kasie Carlson, a 44-year-old acupuncturist who has hosted around 20 concerts in her small Clearwater home. “You have people talking nonstop, you’re not even watching the concert, you’re either videotaping with your phone, or you’re dealing with people bumping into you. I just really appreciate the environment where I can sit and be quiet and actually hear the music.”
Said Kerry Kriseman: “It’s not a bar situation, it’s not a concert, it’s just taking in the music, and really being part of the experience with all of your senses.”
Sometimes the events lead to friendships. After hosting a show by the soul-pop duo Genna and Jesse, Carlson struck up a “lifelong friendship” with singer Genna Giacobassi. Other times, the house concert experience has found ways to spread throughout the community.
Safety Harbor artists Todd and Kiaralinda Ramquist hosted their first concert about 15 years ago, bringing in dozens of fans for private shows and fundraisers by artists like Michelle Shocked, Melanie, Randall Bramblett and actor Jeff Daniels. Over time, the concept of seeing intimate shows in unique spaces inspired them to launch the successful Safety Harbor SongFest and open their own concert venue, Safety Harbor Art and Music Center.
“We had built up a fantastic group of music-loving friends and friends of friends for our house concerts,” said Todd Ramquist. “Our fan base had to grow because our friends can only come and support so many concerts.”
Most of the artists who play house concerts aren’t big national names, although there are exceptions. Amanda Shires, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and late Smithereens singer Pat DiNizio are among those who have played house concerts in Tampa Bay.
“Even John Mayer played house concerts when he was first starting out,” Snyder said. “You could say Mozart was doing house concerts years ago. They called them parlor concerts.”
But for hosts, part of the appeal is knowing they’re backing working artists who aren’t yet famous.
“You’re getting absolutely top-notch talent,” Carlson said. “These are the singer-songwriters that used to go to Music Row in Nashville and get a record contract, but the music industry doesn’t work that way anymore. I wish I could tell everybody that we have a lot of incredibly talented artists that have CDs and are touring, but the music industry is so different now that they don’t have a huge outlet for making money and making a living doing this. Hosting house concerts, to me, is one of the best ways to support the arts, because you’re giving the artists the opportunity to make a living.”
For Kerry Kriseman, that was an important factor in deciding to host her first concert during this year’s Listening Room Festival in March. Snyder helped her set up a performance space and sound system by their backyard pool. On the day of the show, she made pasta salad for the band, Portland, Ore., folk trio Five Letter Word. About 50 guests showed up, filling their dining room table with appetizers, desserts and wine.
“Whether you’re a visual artist or a performing artist or a musician, it’s not an easy business. It’s competitive,” she said. “And if you can support people who are driving and traveling and staying in other people’s homes to try to make a living at what they do — and it’s really amazing talent as well — then I think that’s one of the benefits.” That, plus nice seats at a really great show. “Everything worked really nicely,” Kriseman said, “which is why we want to do it again next year.”