A New Kind of House Party
Musicians take the stage – in the living room
By Lisa Fields

All the furniture has been removed from the living room, and in its place are rows of folding chairs pointed at a single bar stool and one microphone on an elevated platform. This isn’t your typical house party.

In the next room, the kitchen counters – which are dotted with glowing candles and bouquets of roses – overflow with platters of appetizing nibbles. The lights are dimmed, the mood is festive and clusters of folks clutching wine glasses make small talk while waiting for the main event: When visiting singer-songwriter Cliff Cody will unpack his acoustic guitar and bring his clever, country-themed compositions to life, strumming and singing in his rich, soulful voice.

Jim and Pam Davis of Moorestown have been hosting house concerts for the past three years in their home, their backyard or their guest house next door. They invite friends and business associates to listen to musicians perform in an intimate venue that begins and ends as an elegant cocktail party. It allows the couple to combine their passions for music and entertaining.

“We love live music,” Jim says. “It’s fun bringing people together. We’ve had everybody from presidents of banks to landscapers join us.”

House concerts have been growing in popularity in recent years, allowing ordinary folks with an interest in country, rock, folk, classical or other musical styles to invite musicians they admire to play in a cozy, low-key setting without the trappings and commercialism of a public performance. Because house concerts are typically arranged directly between homeowners and independent musicians, there are no reliable statistics documenting the number of such events that take place locally or nationally, but anecdotally, the trend is growing in South Jersey.

The Davises were introduced to house concerts four years ago. They’d gone to Princeton for a live music performance, then found out the same artist would be singing in Moorestown later that week. Eager to hear her again, they took down the address. Their GPS led them to a church, but the parking lot was deserted.

“A car pulls in, and someone says, ‘Look at that house across the street; that’s where they’re playing,’” Jim recalls. “We walked across the street, through the guy’s kitchen, and there were 40 or 50 people sitting in his living room. I said, ‘This is pretty cool. We can do this.’”

Shortly thereafter, the Davises vacationed in Key West. Their trip coincided with the Key West Songwriters’ Festival. They had the chance to chat with some of the singer-songwriters whom they’d seen perform and asked a few if they’d perform in Moorestown later that year. Soon the couple had their first acts lined up for their house concert series.

Their first year, the Davises hosted two house concerts and have gradually increased the frequency of their events. In 2015, they hosted eight house concerts in South Jersey and two additional performances in Lake Placid, where they own another home.

“It’s mainly my clients and friends,” says Jim, who has worked in commercial real estate for 30 years. “It’s a nice, relaxing way to get together.”

The Davises require guests to RSVP so they don’t end up with a bigger crowd than they can handle. They try to limit their indoor performances to 65 people, but 80 people were expected at Cliff Cody’s performance late last year. For outdoor shows during warmer weather, they’ve had 95 guests. Invitations go out to about 500 people.

“Usually, I send out one email blast and it fills up,” Jim says.

The Davises’ events are potluck-style, with guests bringing everything from sushi platters to homemade meatballs to moist, decadent brownies. They must bring their own drinks, too, and they’re required to pay $25 per person to attend, which goes entirely to the musician.

“The music industry is not what you think anymore,” Pam says. “With so many downloads, they’re not making all the money that you think.”

When it’s time for the performer to go on, Pam and Jim ask everyone to be seated, and Jim addresses the crowd. “I usually give a little bit of a speech to say the entertainer is here to tell the story behind the songs that he or she has written,” Jim says. “They’re not here to be background music.”

Singer Cliff Cody with concert hosts Jim and Pam Davis

Singer Cliff Cody with concert hosts Jim and Pam Davis

Cody was one of the musicians the Davises met at the Key West Songwriters’ Festival in May and asked to perform at their home. The arrangement gives the Davises the opportunity to spend a few days with performers like Cody, which is one of the perks they enjoy.

“We have a guest room for the musicians,” Pam says. “You get to spend the weekend with them. I like the interaction.”

Cody, who lives in Ohio’s Appalachian Country, has performed at a handful of house concerts in the past. The Moorestown event was his first house concert in New Jersey. “It’s a nice change from the regular old bars and pubs – it’s much more intimate,” Cody says. “Even when you get to open up for the big artists, you have stage lights in your face and usually all you can see is the first three rows.”

Part of the allure is the give-and-take during the party before and after the performance. “You’re mingling and it’s like you’re the most popular guy there,” Cody says. “Then you’re singing, and it’s a real connection. You get to talk to everybody and meet new people.”

During the Davises’ December house concert, Cody played Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson covers between his original compositions, including a song about a girl with a John Deere tractor tattoo and another song called “Back Home,” written for (and about) deployed soldiers. (He was inspired to write that song when his younger brother was stationed in Iraq.) He also sang covers of Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

“I grew up in Texas, a huge country fan,” Cody says, “but I like to throw in some good stuff you wouldn’t expect from a big, burly country guy. I like to see people’s reactions.”

Cody isn’t the first country singer who has performed in the Davis home. Jim is a country music aficionado and has relished live performances since he was a child. He grew up in an upstate New York farming community where, on Sunday afternoons, the locals would get together to play the fiddle, banjo and harmonica. When he was an undergrad at Cornell University in 1969, he witnessed legendary live rock performances at Woodstock. The Davises also have a home in Nashville, where they soak up the music scene.

“We do a lot in Nashville,” Jim says. “The musicians talk to each other. They like our venue. They like the experience. So we typically have repeats and referrals.”

Carol and Harry Carroll of Moorestown have attended several of the Davises’ house concerts.

“There’s always new talent,” Carol says. “It’s very good. Nobody’s ever disappointed. It’s a very personal experience, to be in their home and talk to the performers.”

The fact that the concerts are held in a residence, rather than a bar or theater, is appealing for many guests. “People feel very comfortable coming to an intimate environment where great music is played, and it’s authentic,” says Kay Towner-Stalle of Moorestown. “You’re hearing it among friends or new friends, so it’s cool.”

Jim and Pam Davis are booking musicians for 2016 and beyond. “We still go to the Key West Songwriters’ Festival every year, and at the end, we invite eight or 10 of them to perform,” Jim says. “When it becomes work, we’re going to stop it, but we have no plans to stop anytime soon.”

February 2016
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