Otto Helmuth is driving into the final song of his Friday night set when something all too familiar to guitarists happens: the high e-string on his guitar snaps and hangs, useless.
No worries. Like many a troubadour, he dives back in to play through the song until — ping! — there goes the B string. Helmuth, percussionist Tim Welch and the assembled crowd pause, Helmuth says something indiscernible and likely unprintable, and then they bring the show home, with something of an interesting guitar sound and a whole lot of spirit.
Things can get a little wild at living room concerts.
Helmuth and Welch were not closing down a bar or playing their final songs at a theater stand. They were playing the living room at John and Ginger Smithwick’s home just off Tates Creek Road, dubbed The Raven House for the four to six times a year it hosts shows.
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The Smithwicks are part of a growing nationwide trend in which homes and other alternative venues are hosting concerts for local and national touring artists. Most of the venues present a handful of shows a year, pay the artist, and give any profits to charity. Helmuth’s outing benefited Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
Everyone involved notes this is different from having a party where a band plays. The band is the focus of these events, and performances usually are promoted on social media and ticketed — though at least one Lexington presenter flies even further under the radar, presenting invitation-only shows. At the Raven House, there is a dinner-partylike atmosphere as guests are invited to bring food and drink.
For touring artists, the Smithwicks, like living room presenters around the country, offer to put them up for the night, and many take them up on the offer.
“Waking up and having coffee with them is kind of surreal,” Smithwick says of artists such as Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing fame and the duo Ken and Holly, featuring Holly Munoz and Ken Stringfellow of Posies and R.E.M. association, to name a few. “And they are just the sweetest people.”
Lexington-connected artists such as Vandaveer and Ben Sollee have gone so far as to present tours almost exclusively made up of living rooms and alternative venues.
“It’s an ongoing scene of artists at a certain level who want to travel really light and they want to tour, but they don’t want to play clubs because it’s too loud,” Smithwick says, adding that the shows also tend to start earlier than bar sets that often don’t launch until around midnight.
On a blog at Livingroomshows.org, Vandaveer musician and Lexington resident J. Tom Hnatow recalls that the largest audience for the band’s living room tour this year was 105 and the smallest was eight.
In one entry, following a couple shows in Virginia, Hnatow distilled the appeal of the format: “Almost every night of these living room shows has at least one unique ‘you had to be there’ moment. In this day and age, that seems so special and unique to me — to be present in a moment, no cameras, no recording — just something to live and then take home, retell, treasure.”
In addition to actual living rooms, similar shows take place at locations such as churches, where the popular Soulful Space series will stage another show Wednesday with St. Louis-based musician Brian Owens at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.
“We had a show at the church — it was a completely secular show — and we decided, maybe we should try this again, with another band,” Soulful Space organizer Sean Gannon says. “So we had a Bob Dylan night, where we invited a few local people — Josh Wright of Bear Medicine and Coralee (of Coralee and the Townies), Robby Cosenza and a few others — and said, we’ll do a night, bring some canned goods and we’ll give them to God’s Pantry. And we filled the place up, and it was a great night. So we decided we were going to try to expand this. This was May of 2014.
“Since then, it’s turned into something really special. It’s good for the audience to be in that space, and good for the artists.”
Helmuth, who has played at Raven House and Soulful Space, says: “As a solo performer, the ability to connect with the audience is a major plus. People are there to listen to you. They’re not there to buy booze and pick up.
“In house shows, there’s a built-in energy for you to do your thing. In bar shows, you have to draw them in.”
Participants are quick to point out that they are not looking to displace bars or other music venues, noting they have heard that criticism. That’s not something they could do, they note, because most alternative venues present shows a couple or maybe a half-dozen times a year, and they usually hold 75 to 100 people — Soulful Space, in the Good Shepherd sanctuary, can host around 300.
Raven House and Soulful Space are known on a national network of alternative venue presenters, and Smithwick, Gannon and others say they get weekly queries about playing.
“I have to say no a lot more than I say yes,” Smithwick says.
Helmuth, 46, also notes that a lot of the living room audience is older and maybe less inclined to go to bars with late start times and sparse accommodations. At the beginning of his Raven House show he jokes, “Feel free to get up and use the bathroom. We’re all aging.”
Patrons that night are also encouraged to check out a show later that evening by opener Josh Wright, whose band Bear Medicine was slated to play at the Green Lantern Bar with local act Small Batch.
After a couple years presenting Raven House shows, Smithwick says he and Ginger have developed a bit of a routine for the concerts. They can quickly stow all but necessary furniture and set up seating for about 80.
As he stands in front of his house greeting guests for Helmuth’s show, it is clear Smithwick does not know everyone coming through his door.
“That’s the No. 1 question I get is, ‘Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to steal something or damage your house?’” Smithwick says. “But everyone is so respectful. They totally appreciate the fact of what we’re doing, and we’ve never, not one time, had any issues with anything. No one’s damaged anything or taken anything — honestly, it’s put some of my faith back in humanity.”
And it has been a great outlet for one of his passions.
“We just love music and we want to support the music scene here,” Smithwick says. “We want to build community … and we use it as a platform to go to a good cause.”
Gannon says, “We want to be good neighbors and part of the hospitality Lexington offers.”
If You Go
What: Performing a Soulful Space concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30
Where: Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, 533 E. Main St.