Dave Crossland finished tuning his well-worn Gibson guitar and started into a song from his latest CD. As he did, the French family, who had been sitting on the back row, stood up, made their way to the door and walked out.
Crossland stopped. Mugging dismay, he turned away from the audience to reach for a bottle of beer. He took a deliberate drink.
“It’s a school night,” someone in the audience said. He brightened, put the bottle down and began to play again, picking up the tempo with each successive chord.
The defection of the French family—mom, dad and two kids under 12—left a sizeable hole in the audience gathered in Grant Hogarth’s vintage-1927 Sugarhouse bungalow on a Sunday night for a “house concert.” Hogarth is one of network of people across the country who open their homes to touring singer-songwriters for acoustic performances. He calls it the modern equivalent of 18th-century chamber music. “It’s really a party at our house with friends and great musicians,” he explained. “We offer intimate music for those who come to listen.”
On this night, the musicians hailed from Boston and New York: singers Crossland and Amy Speace and a percussionist named Jagoda who accompanied both of them with deft brush strokes on an Egyptian tambourine.
Besides the French family, the audience of 30 included a lanky cowboy in a black hat, a woman with a faux fur collar on her coat, a Utah Phillips look-alike and a little girl transfixed by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Teenagers were as scarce as electric guitars.
They sat in folding chairs. People pivoted in their seats to introduce themselves to one another—Is this your first time?—and conversation warmed a room where all but one wall were painted a cool orange. The other wall showcased thousands of CDs packed into floor-to-ceiling shelves. In the kitchen, a table held a variety of potluck offerings—a couple of six packs, three bottles of Australian Cabernet, chips, dip and a plate of peanut butter cookies. On a countertop were a stack of Crossland’s CDs, sign-up sheets for e-mailed announcements of future concerts and a bowl with a hand-lettered sign that read, “Suggested donation $15.”
Hogarth—dressed in a green, Rogue Folk Club T-shirt—eventually took to the makeshift stage at one end of the room. There, under jury-rigged ceiling lights, he announced that it would be a special night because Speace and Pagoda were sitting in. “You get three for the price of one,” he said with a smile. The audience smiled, too.
Speace played the first set. Although she has opened for Judy Collins, her music evoked Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams. Between songs, the repartee with people in the audience was punctuated by quips from Jagoda, one of which earned him a kiss from Speace on the top of his bald head. A long and funny story of an encounter with rednecks in North Carolina set up “Double-wide Trailer,” a song that found its way to airplay on National Public Radio’s “Car Talk.” The anecdote put the audience in the mood to sing, and many spontaneously joined in on the chorus. “I found love in a double-wide trailer,” they sang.
During an intermission, food and drink drew people to the kitchen. The crowd eddied around Speace, who acknowledged compliments with a smile.
Hogarth reassembled the audience by flipping the lights on and off. Then he introduced Crossland as a “master musician and a magician with words,” whereupon the folksinger came through the doorway from the kitchen carrying a bottle of beer, a harmonica and his 1949 Gibson.
He was a better guitar player than Speace, and his stage persona belied an almost plaintive singing voice. “Sweetly sleepy” a Boston Globe writer called it. If you closed your eyes—as he often did as he sang—you might guess Tracy Chapman was the singer. After a few songs, he summoned Speace from the kitchen to sing harmony on “Pearl,” the title track from one of his four CDs. “Hey! There’s wine out here,” she protested playfully. She joined him for two songs, deferring to him with sisterly affection, her eyes fixed on his face as they sang.
After two and a half hours, the guitars were put away. The kitchen filled up again, but the cookies were gone and the wine bottles were empty. Crossland stood to one side and signed CD covers, while Speace, who plays 150-to-200 gigs a year, talked about the importance of house concerts. “We book them a year in advance, then we wrap a tour around them,” she said.
Although Speace and Crossland make a living as performers, they aren’t flying in first-class seats or bunking at the Ritz. “There’s tens of dollars to be made in folk music,” Hogarth deadpanned.
But he has never banked a nickel in the six years he and his late wife, Susanne, have hosted as many as 10 concerts a year. “This isn’t a business,” said Hogarth, who works as a tech writer. “Every dollar of the donation goes to the artists.” So why do it? “It forces you to clean the house,” he laughed.
Like a minister at the end of Sunday services or a guy in need of a cigarette, Jagoda was on the front porch as people began to leave. He said it was his second trip to Utah, and he liked it here, not so much for the scenery as for the caliber of the audiences. “In the Northeast,” he said, “audiences are not good at listening. The farther you get from New York, the better it gets.” cw