GREENSBORO — With skies clear and temperatures in the 70s, the band, hosts and fans couldn’t have hoped for a more pleasant concert setting this April evening.
Birds of Chicago vocalist and guitarist JT Nero and local musician Alan Peterson — subbing as sound man — set up equipment on the Fisher Park backyard pergola.
Husband-and-wife hosts Jim Halsch and Sue Hunt greet neighbors and friends, who saunter in with lawn chairs, snacks and desserts to share bottles of wine and $20 donations for the Chicago-based musical collective.
“This beats being in a dark club on a night like this,” Nero says.
Welcome to Music at Big Purple, one of the growing number of house and backyard concert spots in Greensboro and across the country.
These events are private, by invitation only.
But music fans often can snag an evite by registering on house concert websites or their Facebook pages.
Locally, spots have names such as Big Purple (a nod to the house’s eggplant color), Backyard Stage, Blue Door Stage and Stage 11, and Brad and Tammy’s Listening Loft in Reidsville.
There, fans will find an artist or ensemble performing original music in a home or backyard, to a crowd of 15 inside to more than 100 outdoors.
Nero says that he has noticed more house and backyard concerts since he began touring in 2010.
Like other musicians, he and his wife, Allison Russell, and lead guitarist Mandy Fer often combine house concerts with stops in traditional venues while on tour.
Musicians appreciate sharing their original music and stories with an attentive audience not distracted by club or festival noise.
“We play clubs; we play theaters,” Nero said. “But we always mix this kind of thing in, because you can’t replace this relaxed intimacy in a traditional venue.”
“For artists particularly in the roots/Americana/folk world, where people really are focused on songs and want to hear the lyrics and want to be able to interact with the music in a controlled environment ... it’s tough to beat,” Nero said.
Not only do musicians receive 100 percent of the donations — typically a suggested $15 to $20 per person — but hosts often feed and house them during their stay.
They often can make more money and keep down expenses, compared with playing in a public venue that has overhead costs to cover.
Audiences and hosts enjoy hearing original music without going to a bar or club.
“You can see your friends,” said Jane Hewitt, who came to Big Purple to hear Birds of Chicago. “And you can actually meet and talk to the musicians.”
Kate Panzer appreciates music she might not otherwise hear. “It’s also a good way of supporting the artists,” Panzer said.
Hosts — often empty-nesters or baby boomers — don’t look for cover bands, but for professional singer/songwriters who perform their own music. That helps protect house concerts from paying music licensing fees.
Although it can cost them money without any in return, hosts view it as a labor of love.
“A lot of our audience is older, but we come from a generation that is more used to going to shows, and we miss that,” said Brad Spencer, who since 2011 has hosted indoor concerts with his wife, Tammy, at their Reidsville home. “We’re also from a generation that isn’t likely to go to a bar that has a band. And these are fantastic bands.”
Hosts enjoy meeting artists and neighbors and making new friends.
“This started out as inviting all of our friends,” said Hunt, an attorney. “And then our friends brought friends and they brought friends. It’s really a great way to create community.”
Paul Heist Jr. agrees. He and his wife, Karen, host Backyard Stage at their Sunset Hills home. They have averaged a show each month for six years, either in their living room or outdoors.
“In these divided times, it seems that music is a common thread that holds us together,” Paul Heist said.
Back in 2006, a Florida musician saw the need to create an international resource for house concerts.
A touring singer/songwriter, Fran Snyder had played a concert in his friend’s living room and loved the atmosphere. But he found online resources out of date.
Snyder launched the website ConcertsInYourHome.com. He runs it under his company, Listening Room Network.
Artists pay $300 a year to be listed and promote their work. Hosts, who pay $10 to join, can find advice, inspiration and acts.
Fans find a searchable database of house concerts in the United States, Canada, even Europe and Australia.
Snyder is writing a book about house concerts. He likes to remind hosts that they don’t have to be wealthy or have large homes to present one.
“It doesn’t have to be big to be meaningful, especially if you are willing to do something that’s not on a Friday or Saturday night,” Snyder said.
He encourages hosts to keep events private, to know those whom they invite or to talk first with someone new, and not to take part of donations to cover expenses.
That way, Snyder said, it’s considered a party in your home, covered by homeowners’ insurance.
“We encourage hosts to be as small as they need to be to be safe,” Snyder said.
Prospective hosts often become inspired by attending a house concert elsewhere.
Hunt and Halsch attended one at Backyard Stage.
“We thought, ‘Well, gosh, we have this huge backyard that we’re not using,’” Hunt said.
With advice from the Heists, Halsch and a neighbor constructed an outdoor pergola to be used as a stage. Halsch bought a sound system. The Heists connected them with their first musician.
Music at Big Purple typically hosts concerts from spring through fall. In bad weather, it brings shows indoors.
It opened its fourth year in late March with singer/songwriter Emily Scott Robinson.
Robinson, 29, grew up in Greensboro, the daughter of John and Betsi Robinson.
She and her husband spend part of the year traveling in support of Robinson’s career, which recently took her to perform on NPR.
About 65 people gathered in Hunt and Halsch’s living room and dining room to hear Robinson perform original folk songs.
“People like Jim and Sue make this career not only possible but really sustainable,” Robinson said during a break.
Big Purple will host a CD release show by the local Dave Cecil Band on May 25.
Musician Jim Herrmann and his wife, Linda Erday, have turned the garage of their Friendly Acres home into a small concert space.
They call it Stage 11, after a campground stage that Herrmann created at an annual Kansas festival.
Erday, a veterinarian by profession, hosted house concerts when she lived in Danville, Va., and Weaverville.
So far this year, they have hosted two, presented by musician friends from other states. N.C. musician Joe Newberry has expressed interest in performing, Erday said.
Big Purple and Backyard Stage inspired Kip Corrington and his wife, Marin Burton, to present concerts in their Sunset Hills living room.
Since 2015, they have hosted seven indoor concerts at the spot they call The Blue Door Stage.
Corrington and Burton hear about prospective performers through word of mouth.
“We just love music, and we’re trying to support the artists,” Corrington said.
The Heists’ interest took root after they saw indie rock musician Bess Rogers at The Green Bean downtown.
They offered Rogers and fellow musicians Rachel Platten, Craig Meyer and Martin Rivas a place to stay for the night.
Platten offered to do a house concert on her next tour. So the Heists built a backyard stage to host Platten’s show there in 2011.
“We fell in love with doing the shows and hosting the musicians,” Paul Heist said.
To protect themselves from any potential music licensing issues, the Heists joined Folk Alliance International. The organization reached an agreement with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. so house concerts would not have to pay licensing fees.
They lean toward bringing in singer/songwriters, pop and folk musicians. Most come from New York and Nashville, the rest from North Carolina and elsewhere.
Platten, who has performed at Backyard Stage five times, received national attention in 2015 with her “Fight Song.”
The Heists have hosted Lee DeWyze, who won television’s “American Idol” singing competition in 2009, and duo A Great Big World, who received international attention with their hit, “Say Something.”
Last Friday, Backyard Stage presented a duo from Asheville-based band The Broadcast. Acts planned this summer include Rebekah Todd & the Odyssey, Todd Carey and Julian Velard.
“Every neighborhood should have a backyard stage,” Paul Heist said.