Maybe it’s strange to walk into a stranger’s house and sit in their living room with a bunch of other strangers and listen to music.
Well, nobody here seems to think so.
After following printed-out signs saying “Come on in,” and funneling into the room, myself and about 30 other people had staked our spots on couches and fold-out chairs and pillows. We found koozies for beers in the kitchen and made small talk about finding the house OK. I wondered out loud how different a show like this could be from the other shows I frequented at coffee shops or bars or local venues or even watching a favorite artist on YouTube.
And, then, I returned to my pillow seat. The artist — Julia Nunes — walked downstairs and took her seat in front of the mantel, which the hosts had decorated with string lights and a framed Julia Nunes show poster and a wooden block inscribed with, “Davenport, Iowa.”
Julia grabbed her ukulele for a quick tune-up and waved to the faces she recognized spread out around the room. The show was about to start.
'They're not keggers'
I had never been to a living room show before, but I had heard about the concept when I interviewed Julia last summer ahead of her show at Baked Beer and Bread Company in the Village of East Davenport. It was the only non-living room show on her tour in support of “Some Feelings,” the album she released in September 2015.
“At a house show, it’s very unplugged, and you see the faces of everyone in the room,” she told me at the time. “Things get really personal every single time.”
After that show, I followed Julia on Instagram, which I recommend doing if you’re looking for tips on vegan cooking and relationships and meditation and cool dance moves or if you want to hear about her next tour or new songs. Over the past year, I scrolled through photos and videos of dreamy living room shows, which Julia, who is based in Los Angeles, described as “very, very intimate” and “part concert, part self-care workshop.”
“Living room shows are just like 50 people hanging out in a room together and I happen to be leading that hang sesh (session),” Julia said in a Fuse video interview I found on YouTube.
Julia first performed in Davenport during River Roots Live in 2012 a few years after getting her break opening up for Ben Folds. She returned here in 2013 to play a living room show at Kyle and Mo Carter’s house.
About a month ago, I got a message from Kyle Carter saying something like, “She’s coming back to our living room!”
After snagging a ticket, I got an email with the hosts’ address and instructions to show up by 7:45 p.m. and bring a pillow to sit on. I then read up on Undertow Music, the company that artists like Julia work with to put on these house shows. (Head’s up: Jason Narducy will be playing a living room show in Rock Island on July 22).
On its website, the company, which is based in Champaign, Illinois, stresses that these shows are not parties. The website also says things like this: “By purchasing tickets you understand and agree that you attend a living room show at your own risk.”
I had more questions, so I called up Jayne Ballantyne, a living room show coordinator for Undertow Music. She has worked there for four years and the living room shows have been happening for about six.
“It’s kind of amazing that people throw their money at us and all we give them is a zip code at first,” Ballantyne said. “That’s a lot of trust.”
Ballantyne also said this: “We’re really good at doing these and finding safe, comfortable spaces.”
Undertow started coordinating living room shows to “make it as easy as possible for the artists to make money and have a good show.”
“At venues, some people go there just to drink as opposed to going to see the artist,” she said. “With this, you eliminate that excess noise. As an artist, you show up, you tune and you play to a captive audience. The people who are there really want to be there.”
Ballantyne is quick to compare these shows to Tupperware parties or graduation parties, “except people are also playing quiet music.”
“They’re not keggers,” she said.
'You can't recreate that'
After playing her first tune for this living room, Julia made an announcement: “I know a lot of you are sitting cross-legged and if you do that for too long, your legs are going to fall asleep.”
She encouraged everyone to move around when they needed and stretch, “like you would do if we were all just hanging out,” she said.
And you know what? That’s what it started to feel like.
I didn’t measure it, but I sat probably less than three feet from Julia and her bandmate, Chase Burnett. They didn’t use microphones or plug anything in. I took out my phone a couple times to take videos; but other than that, I forgot about any text messages or social media I could be checking.
“I really think it’s good for us to acknowledge our feelings,” Julia said, in between songs. “That’s a lot of why I write music.”
I looked around at the mix of strangers and acquaintances and friends around me, and I saw people singing along and holding hands and smile-staring at Julia and, during the lyrics with extra feelings, I noticed a few tears.
During a short Q&A, people asked Julia about her musical influences and what songs she wants to cover and how she finds contentment. Julia answered it all and talked about why she doesn’t remember birthdays and breakups and what she listened to on the drive here from St. Louis.
Those are the kind of moments that likely wouldn’t be possible — or as audible— at a bar or a venue. You can't hide from whatever the artist is singing or saying or feeling.
“The intimacy you feel with the artist right in front of you,” Kyle Carter said after the show. “You can’t recreate that.”
That’s why Rosie Nelson, who attended Julia’s living room show in Davenport in 2013, signed up to host concerts at her house via HomeDitty.com. Through that site, Nelson picked from a network of bands who want to play house shows. Her first one, a private concert featuring Missouri-based band The Center State, is on Saturday.
“I really like the intimate feel of it,” Nelson said. “At a bar, you got the drinks and people who are talking and the band doesn’t get the attention they deserve. At a living room show, the band is the center of the engagement. We’re not there to party. We’re there to see them.”
Before going to my first living room show, Ballantyne prepped me with these words: “Living room shows are kind of incredible. I work with them all day and even when I get burnt out from work, I go out of my way to go to a living room show. It recharges me. You get to close the world out for a while.”
I have to agree. When Julia was done playing, she gave out hugs and posed for iPhone selfies and pictures with her Polaroid camera. I got to share some chips and salsa with her and tell her “thank you” for writing and playing awesome music.
I understood for myself what was so special about these living room shows. It's not something you can really grasp via Instagram, even though I plan on posting one of my videos of Julia, or by hearing about it second-hand. You'll just to have to find a nearby show and a comfy pillow and see for yourself.
Before Julia’s first song of the night, she asked the crowd who had seen her before. I’d say more than half raised their hands. That included people who had walked over from a house down the street and four teenagers who drove in earlier that day from Chicago.
“You’re from Chicago? I’m going to be there soon, so, I’m sorry you had to make the drive,” Julia said.
“We’ll see you then, too,” one of them said. “Don’t worry.”