This article appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on February 12, 2006. 

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House concerts offer music, friendship in cozy setting

BY NIZ PROSKOCIL / Omaha World-Herald

There are cavernous arenas where big-name acts play for thousands of fans.

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An Omaha house-concert series called FolkHouse drew more than 60 people in January for a performance by Nashville singer-songwriter Jeff Black. Guests sit on folding chairs, couches and the stairs in the Fontenelle Boulevard house where hosts Diane and Jerome Brich started the series in May 2000.

There are smoky, noisy bars where musicians play for crowds that seem more concerned with getting their drinks than listening to music.

And then there are house concerts.

Think of them as sort of a musical Tupperware party, only cooler. People come over, share food and socialize for a couple of hours. But instead of a host who hawks pricey plastic bowls, a singer-songwriter delivers live music.

Around the Midlands and across the nation, music fans are enjoying concerts in the comfort of someone's home. The nontraditional setting offers a cozy, smoke-free environment where the focus is on the performance.

But for many musicians, fans and concert organizers, the house-concert culture goes beyond music.

When Diane and Jerome Brich started a house-concert series called FolkHouse in May 2000, they mainly wanted a way to bring artists they liked to town.

But now, nearly six years and 58 house concerts later, the Brichs have found another benefit to welcoming music fans - many of them strangers - to their midtown Omaha home at 2440 Fontenelle Blvd.

"We enjoy the social aspect almost as much as the music. We've met some great people who we really enjoy spending time with," said Jerome Brich. "I really love it when people who have never been to one of these concerts show up and are blown away by how cool it is."

People like college students Anne Muskin and her boyfriend, Brett Ostronic.

A few weeks ago, the two twentysomethings from Omaha attended their first FolkHouse concert. Nashville singer-songwriter Jeff Black was the artist.

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Jeff Black performs at the January FolkHouse concert. Host Diane Brich says one of the benefits of hosting house concerts is forming friendships with the performers. "You get to know them on a personal level."

"It's so intimate," said Muskin, who typically attends concerts at bars or music venues like Sokol Underground.

"This is a really cool thing," Ostronic said. "You feel really close to the artist."

At Black's concert, a capacity crowd of 63 sat on folding chairs, couches and even a stairway as he sang, strummed his acoustic guitar, shared stories and plucked his banjo.

Audience members, many seated within arm's reach of Black, were so quiet you could hear the clink of a wine glass being placed on the wood floors. Moments later, a screen door creaked open as a man entered and took a seat on the stairs. Outside, a dog barked in the distance.

During intermission, guests mingled and grazed on snacks spread out on tables and countertops in the Brichs' kitchen. Others retreated outdoors for a smoke break or purchased CDs and got autographs from Black.

For Paul Smith, the appeal of FolkHouse concerts is the atmosphere, affordability and accessibility to the artists.

Smith, 51, has attended nearly every FolkHouse performance. He loves taking photos of the performers as they're playing and meeting them afterward.

Unlike arena concerts, Smith said, fans who go to house concerts don't fight for parking; don't get charged $5 for a beer; don't need to bring binoculars; and don't leave with their ears ringing.

But before all the guests arrive, hosts must prepare their homes for the crowds. They clean, move furniture, clear away clutter, cook dinner for the performer, prepare snacks for guests and, if they're using one, set up a sound system.

Hosts make sure there's enough toilet paper, chairs and refreshments to go around. And, no, they don't stash all their valuables. The Brichs say they've never encountered an unruly guest or an unruly artist, many of whom crash overnight at their place.

Because of the time and effort that go into planning a house concert - not to mention juggling full-time jobs, families and other commitments - most presenters have house concerts fewer than a dozen times a year.

For each show, the Brichs spend from $50 to $100 of their own money on food and beverages. Performers keep every penny of the admission, which ranges from $10 to $15 per person.

For musician Patrick Brickel, the beauty of a house concert is that it "exists on a very pure level."

"It doesn't exist to sell beer and make a profit," Brickel said. "It exists because the presenter simply loves music."

Brickel, a singer-songwriter from Iowa City, said he's looking forward to making his FolkHouse debut April 1. He has attended other house concerts as both a performer and a fan.

"They provide a great opportunity for musicians to play a very real show - no amplification, no smoke, no loud background noise, and an audience only a couple of feet away," he said. "There is an entire community of house-concert lovers, and they get really jazzed about this stuff."

Rebecca Carr, who since 1999 has had a series of concerts at her home in Lincoln, said the social aspect of house shows is a big appeal.

"House concerts are about music and about community," said Carr, who before moving to Lincoln lived on the East Coast, where she was introduced to house concerts through friends.

Carr said that as word-of-mouth has spread, attendance has grown. In the first year or two, she said, average attendance was about 20 fans. In recent years, the average has climbed to about 30. The capacity is 42.

"It's definitely easier to fill the room now," she said. "But there are fewer twentysomethings than I would like."

The average age of guests at Carr's house concerts is mid-40s. It's the same with the FolkHouse crowd, though the Brichs have had several twentysomethings - whose parents are regulars - show up on their own.

Diane Brich said that one of the benefits of hosting house concerts is forming friendships with the performers.

"You get to know them on a personal level," she said. "They eat dinner with us. Even after the concert is done, we get to have some quiet time with them."

She and her husband also enjoy doing house concerts because they help expose their children - Emily, 17, Ben, 16, and Chloe, 13 - to different types of music.

Diane said she never had any qualms about allowing strangers into her home. She grew up in a big family, loves to entertain and enjoys meeting new people.

But there have been times when the Brichs have questioned whether to keep the series going.

"I've had some health issues over the last five years, so there's been times where we've thought, 'Maybe we shouldn't do this,'" said Diane, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

"But it's so worth it. I don't want to stop."

For newcomers who might be hesitant about attending a house concert, Diane suggested they "just jump in and try it."

"You can come with your friends," she said, "but you'll end up making new friends."

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