A wisp of a man, dressed in urban Western wear and sunglasses, dodged through the crowd in Pete and Lindsey Richards' York living room with a guitar in his hand and stepped up to the microphone.
"You should have seen the show in Pennsylvania," sang Daniel Romano with a baritone twang, his ballad inspired by another concert, another day, "but it's far and out of the way, so I don't blame ya."
Far and out of the way.
That's where most singers and bands travel, the backroads of America's underground music scene. While mainstream music floods terrestrial, Internet and satellite radio stations, reaching the masses and building a cult of personality, underground music forces people to discover the artists, typically in a small listening room venue, a coffee shop, a house concert or a festival.
Canadian Daniel Romano doesn't play Hershey's Giant Stadium to teeming crowds, sporting branded T-shirts. He plays at venues for a special flavor of music lover — one who stands in a brutally warm house in the summer for two 45-minute sets just to listen. No talking during the concert, but go ahead and clap your hands or stomp your feet. Have fun. No extra charge.
That's why the crowd arrived at the Richards' house, an East Philadelphia Street relic that doubles as Sign of the Wagon, York's best-kept secret, a house concert venue. The first floor serves as an art gallery for Lindsey (nee Lindsey Keeney) and turns into an occasional performance hall, complete with speakers and lights. Last week, Sign of the Wagon had Romano on Wednesday night with a crowd of about 20 people from early 20s to mid-50s and Steelism on Saturday with about 40 guests, nearly a full house.
Mid-Atlantic touring area
"I"ve always believed that music is a great economic development tool," said J.J. Sheffer, organizer for York's Kable House Presents shows, a Central Market venue about twice the size of a house concert. She finds artists with a two- or three-degree of separation from her, bands that are touring part of the country and traveling through York. "We're right in the middle of the mid-Atlantic touring area."
The house concert and small venues help musicians — instead of paying for a hotel room in the midst of a tour, they have a place to stay, a good meal, and an evening with people who feel the love.
"To give them a place to play and hear people clapping and stomping their feet, it's amazing," said Pete Richards, a part-time musician himself who plays in the local band Free Breakfast with his wife.
When a concert is over, the musicians climb the stairs to crash for the night, waking up to a breakfast and the cash from last night's concert. At Sign of the Wagon, the charge is $10 per guest; all of it goes to the artists.
"The hardest things that we deal with are our travel and accommodations (costs)," said Mark Fletcher, a multi-instrument musician with Steel City Rovers, a Celtic band from Ontario.
Karen and Tim Lehman, house concert hosts in Lancaster, recently traveled to New York's Catskill Mountains for the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and found themselves listening — with special affection — to I Draw Slow, an Irish Americana band.
"They were playing in front of 3,000 people, and they were in our house," Tim Lehman said with awe.
The Lehmans produce Chestnut House Concerts in Lancaster. They ask guests ($15-20 person) to bring food and drinks to share for a 6-7 p.m. potluck, and the show starts at 7. In fact, when they looked to buy a house, they had one caveat: It had to be a good venue for house concerts.
The Steel City Rovers discovered the Lehmans last year through another band, and Fletcher called them, hoping to book a house concert as a stopover before the Rovers headed to an Ohio festival. It was a great experience, Fletcher said.
In the entertainment business, the space between the entertainer and the audience is described as a glass wall. "There's nothing we enjoy more than dissolving the glass wall," Fletcher said. That's what an intimate venue does.
Filling the musical gap
Both the Lehmans and the Richards have space for about 50 people. While they all love the music scene in their respective cities — in York, CapLive in York's Capitol Theatre, the Kable House shows and the Depot — they believe intimate venues enhance each city's musical footprint.
In Lancaster, Jason Mundok ended his house concert series in 2013 and started booking shows for the Candy Factory, a co-working space in a chic, renovated warehouse where he plays software developer by day and concert promoter/audio producer by night. Among his shows, he created one series called Lancasphere, atmospheric music — ethereal, ambient, electronic, improv — that no other venues book.
"There's a gap here in Lancaster. There are house shows, but nothing public," he said. "We wanted to create a series of concerts where people can enjoy the music in a distraction-free way."
Hannah Nawa books bands for The Thought Lot in Shippensburg, a larger venue for about 200 people but with intimate touches, such as café tables and permission for guests to bring food and drink. It's a co-op space for artists with the majority of the acreage dedicated to music, said Nate Serino, director of operations.
"One of the reasons the Lot is good is that it exposes people to bands they've never heard of before," said Nawa, who chooses bands based on what "speaks" to her, not a large number of fans or slick promotion.
"(The Lot is) specifically targeted to live, original music," Serino said. "The goal is the up-and-coming creative folks who are writing their own music."
Sharing the love
Most guests — just like at the house concerts or Kable House shows — don't know the band beforehand. Some people like to be surprised; others go online and listen to a few songs before the show. Like most of today's underground music, people trust the venue to provide a good artist. That's why they show up.
At each show — like the Daniel Romano performance at Sign of the Wagon — some of the guests are regulars. Others appear new to this, like a man asking if he could buy a beer in the house. Pete Richards explained that he can't sell alcohol, but feel free to pour a draft in the basement and leave a donation, if you can.
As Romano kept the audience's attention for song after song at Sign of the Wagon, Lindsey Richards found a space in her living room to listen while her husband paced the house with a beer in hand, his shirt wet from the heat, pausing to take in the live show that filled his house with music while three more people walked through the front door and paid the $10 entrance fee.
Welcome to the underground.