Recently, in the midst of a tour throughout New England, Minn., singer-songwriter Peter Mayer found himself stuck at a Pennsylvania airport. His license had expired three days before, thwarting his plans to rent a car and drive to his next gig. "I had no idea what I was going to do," he laughs, speaking on a cordless phone from the outside deck of a fan's house in Maryland. "So I just started calling people I knew from doing house concerts. I connected with someone from New Hampshire, and they came -- drove all the way out -- picked me up at the airport, and drove me to Boston."
House concert? The energetic Mayer, who has put out four albums since 1993, plays at coffee houses, churches, bars, concert halls and more. Quite often, however, his most intimate concert experiences happen in the homes of his fans, where, as an invited guest, he plays before cleared-out living rooms full of attentive listeners.
"When people first come to a house concert, it's like a revelation -- oh yeah, you know, I can just have music in my own house," he says. "Something that never fails to delight me is to do a house concert where it's never been done before -- everyone is so surprised and excited about the whole thing."
Artists have varying reasons for accepting house gigs. For one, it's nice to have an audience of people who have actually come to listen, rather than, say, to pick up chicks at a bar. Besides, artists can often make the same amount of money playing at a house, where admission fees bypass the middleman and go straight to the performer. And then, of course, there's the hospitality: a home-cooked meal, a night away from a hotel, the company of drooling music-lovers. "You can't be too introverted," laughs Mayer. "Luckily, I'm not painfully shy, so I enjoy it."
Recently, Colorado Springs resident Rob Gordon, who, like many others fans the country, clears out his living room a few times a year for concerts, ran into some trouble. A neighbor from several blocks away read a Gazette article describing the house concert world; the article contained pictures from a gig that Peter Mayer played at Gordon's Skyway home. Unhappy with such use of her neighborhood, she called the city and asked whether house concerts fit with Colorado Springs zoning rules.
The ensuing legal process has hit Gordon financially, and as a result, Mayer has agreed to perform at a benefit concert for the Society for the Promotion of Live Music in Small Venues, Gordon's tongue-in-cheek pseudonym. "Rob is just nuts!" says Meyer. "He's driven to make things happen, and that's great. People who put on house concerts don't make money from it, so they have to have some other motivation. They want to create moments for people."
The intimacy of a house concert coincides well with Mayer's particular style of music, which may be described as folk -- in the sense that all acoustic music these days ends up being labeled that way -- but is grounded in the pop music of the '60s and '70s, recalling at times '60s dudes like Cat Stevens and James Taylor, '70s-era Elton John, or a more lively David Wilcox. "I'm kind of a mutt, not a pure-bred," says Mayer. "Folk music is about passing down songs, learning a traditional canon. I write my own songs, so I'm more of a solo singer-songwriter."
A song like "Waking Up," in which Mayer's satirical character rants, "Last night I was dreaming I was in my GMC / I was feeling kind of empty 'cause it was just a '93" reveals a strong sense of humor, but also a commitment to the art of songcraft, a skillful use of the guitar, and especially, the kind of substantive lyrical content that Mayer finds lacking in many popsters these days.
"I think you owe it your listeners not to just throw things out into the world. I met a musician from India who said that over there, they stress the responsibility that a musician has to the community. You play a role in society, and you need to be very careful about what you present to people."
"Holy Now" is a song that many Mayer fans point to as an apotheosis -- a remembrance of being stuck in church as a young person and the later realization that, hey wait a second, there are miracles all over the place. It's ruminative, forward-moving and catchy enough that even an indie rock refugee like myself has had it stuck in his head all day. In performance, the song gains a sort of shimmer off the faces of its listeners that makes the room feel, well, holy.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Mayer has noticed a change in the lives of the people he has met through touring. "There's been almost a pause, and I think a very good one. I don't want in any way to devalue the fear that people are going through, or support the creators of that fear, but I do think that our culture is guilty of a fast-paced, materialistic lifestyle, and now there's a certain mindfulness about what's important," he says. "The first weeks of touring after the tragedy, everybody just wanted to be together -- it didn't matter where, just together. I feel happy to be a musician. I'm happy to play for people."