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Live music in Westboro: House concerts an undiscovered Ottawa gem

By Julie Cruikshank on October 17, 2012

When most of us think of concerts in Ottawa, we think of events like Bluesfest with their huge stages, loud sound systems, and high profile acts. Or perhaps of venues like the Bronson Centre or the NAC, where we pay for our tickets and hope for good seats. Of course these experiences have their merits, representing an invaluable part of Ottawa’s live music scene. But there are also those who are looking for something a little bit different. Maybe you don’t want to be part of a crowd of hundreds craning their necks to see famous acts on the jumbotron. Maybe you can’t afford to frequent the NAC. Maybe you just want an experience that’s a little more personal.

If this sounds like you, there’s a lady in Westboro who wants to meet you. Nicole Colbeck has been in the music business for over 20 years. With her friend Peter MacDonald, she founded Pathway Sound Productions, which later became Nutshell Music. Their first concert was a Wednesday night event at Barrymore’s in 1995 featuring British Christian group Iona: 300 people showed up, and from then on Colbeck was hooked. Her resume includes such illustrious gigs as producing the Ottawa Folk Festival, the Glengarry Highland Games, and even Bluesfest. After leaving Nutshell in the early 2000s, she has held a variety of positions with music organizations and non-profits, and these days she manages artists as Little Acorn Music Management.

Seven years ago, Colbeck opened her home and began doing house concerts. “Because I was working in the music industry, it was easy for me to put the word out,” she says. A house concert is basically exactly what it sounds like. Generally considered to have evolved from traditional East Coast kitchen parties, they involve an artist or artists playing a set in someone’s home. This of course necessitates a small audience and the result is an intimate experience that allows for maximum interaction with the performer. In Ottawa they were started by the late Helen Verger, co-founder of Rasputin’s Folk Café. Verger would allow young musicians and artists to stay with her in her home, and in the evenings would invite her friends in for impromptu concert sessions.

Colbeck continues this tradition, providing artists with room and board (and home cooking) in addition to ticket sales and a performance venue. “[The house concert] has always been what it is today. It’s just gained popularity and it’s gained a presence in the landscape of touring artists,” she says. Indeed, for musicians on tour, house concerts have come as something of a godsend, providing them with a soft bed and a decent meal in addition to the opportunity to fill holes in their touring schedules.

A typical evening at a Westboro House Concert sees the doors open to ticket holders around 7 or 8pm. Artists can arrive any time after 5pm and have dinner with Colbeck and her family before the audience arrives. A small army of family members mill around behind the scenes making sure the kitchen is clean and the chairs are positioned while the artist is given a room upstairs to prepare. The concert itself usually takes place in the living room, with guests sitting in the adjoining dining room (though sometimes the direction is reversed). Simple decorations of fairy lights and tealight candles provide a cosy, intimate feel that sets the stage for the concert.

Admission usually ranges from $15-$20, and concerts are always BYOB. Artists generally play two sets, with an intermission in between that features a range of goodies often prepared by Colbeck’s two daughters, Carolynne and Leanne. The evenings are always light-hearted  and performers take the opportunity to banter with the audience between songs and while they’re tuning their instruments. Ian Foster and Terry Tufts, both regulars in the Westboro House Concerts series, are good examples of master storytellers who regale audiences with almost as many anecdotes as songs. “Everybody benefits from a really cool evening if everyone is engaged,” says Colbeck, who in the past has also hosted such artists as Craig Cardiff, Manitoba Hal, Suzie Vinnick, and Rita Chiarelli.

Financially, house concerts make a lot of sense for musicians. While most traditional venues will charge a fee (usually comprised of a portion of ticket and merchandise sales) – as well as requiring the artist to pay for a sound technician and security – at a house concert this isn’t the case.  Colbeck provides the use of her home as a venue for free to the artist, and the musician pockets all of the revenue from ticket and CD sales. For her, staging house concerts is about supporting touring artists and bringing great live music to her community – financial gain doesn’t enter into it. It’s also a lot less expensive for the audience, and provides a more intimate, one-on-one experience.

Of course, like anything, it’s not all rosy. Because house concerts are such a good deal for musicians and audiences, they’re beginning to attract revenue away from smaller and less central venues. As it becomes more difficult for small halls to attract artists, they wind up having to book bigger, more mainstream acts and charging a lot more to make up for lost revenue. “It’s like an in-your-face butterfly effect,” explains Colbeck, adding that most people don’t know that this happens. Still, she believes that it is the responsibility of the music industry to change and adapt as new trends emerge. As house concerts become a bigger and more visible part of the live music landscape in Canada, it’s up to small hall proprietors and house concert hosts to come up with a solution that allows them to coexist.

In the meantime, Westboro House Concerts are still going strong. For those interested in experiencing it first-hand, the next concert is this Saturday, October 20 and will feature Lunenberg finger-style guitarist Bob Ardern. Unlike a traditional concert, however, spots can only be reserved by contacting Colbeck directly by email (westborohouseconcerts@gmail.com) or through the Westboro House Concerts Facebook page. It’s an understandably big gamble opening your home to the public, so Colbeck doesn’t make her address – or the details of her mailing list – widely known. But that little bit of extra effort to get in touch and secure a seat pays off hugely for the audience. Westboro House Concerts is truly a joyous and intimate experience, and a great way to take in some live music on a Saturday night in Ottawa.

Next concert: Bob Ardern on Saturday, October 20 at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). Cost is $20, and the event is BYOB.