Tim Sanborn is not a musician yet.
A recently developed hobby puts him a little closer to that dream. At least, he’s in proximity to some of the best singer-songwriters working today.
They’re practically in his living room.
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It began simply: “Friends on my street hosted Kelley McRae on their back patio in March of 2012,” Sanborn says. At the time, he had never heard of the concept of a house concert, but the success of that event convinced him this should be more than a one-time happening. From there, Huntersville’s burgeoning Homefront Music Series, which brings nationally-known indie singer-songwriters to a community clubhouse, was born.
Originally called The Wynfield Singer-Songwriter Concert Series—named for the neighborhood Sanborn and his wife, Kay, have called home for more than 20 years—these intimate living room concerts often with 60 to 90 guests have grown in popularity since their inception in September 2012 with its first performance by pop singer/songwriter Ari Hest, whom Sanborn had seen at a Charlotte venue. Though community clubhouses aren’t Hest’s typical venue—the New York-based indie artists usually plays clubs with more of a pedigree including the storied Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia and Freigh and Salvage in Berkeley, California—he agreed to perform for Sanborn’s concert series. Hest played a sold-out show for 103 at the Wynfield clubhouse.
Sanborn was, naturally, apprehensive about that first show. “Are we really going to pull this off?” He recalls thinking. But the worry was short-lived. “It didn't take long for Ari to make new fans and for me to relax,” he says. “Early in the first set, the feeling of energy in the room was palpable to everyone.”
While these private concerts generally involve just one performer with a guitar, it takes a village working behind-the-scenes to make it all happen. “It took a whole team of family and friends, a small community within our community, to put on the first show,” Sanborn says. Kay recruited friends to help her stuff neighborhood mailboxes with flyers. The Sanborns’ daughter designed and printed tickets. The group borrowed chairs from a church, and friends helped set up and break down the clubhouse.
If setting up a show is a team effort, lining up talent is a solitary venture. Sanborn does that himself. In addition to Hest, he’s hosted Liz Longley and Seth Glier, among other notables. Tony Furtado is scheduled to play Dec. 11. Sanborn says he’ll book singers from genres including “pop, folk, indie, Americana, country and blends thereof.”
“None of the artists who have played for our series are famous by mainstream standards, at least not yet,” he says. “It's great fun to bring them to our community while helping them build their fan base in the area.”
Ellis Paul is one such artist. Paul made a name for himself on Boston’s vibrant folk scene more than 20 years ago. Now a staple on the singer-songwriter circuit, he has released more than 16 albums during his critically acclaimed career. (Paul will play the club(house) on May 9.) Although he’s used to selling out bigger venues, the intimate gathering in Huntersville suits him just fine. “These smaller, living room shows are much more conversational,” he says. “They’re casual and interactive. In a lot of ways, it’s like a night off. There’s less pressure. I’m still performing, but it feels like I’m playing for friends.”
The set-up, which includes a 20-minute intermission between two 45-minute set—is conducive to meeting the singer and fellow music lovers. “We have a combination of couches, pub tables and folding chairs,” Sanborn says. “Folks bring their own bottles of wine or beer. We have typically provided desserts made by our friends who want to help out.”
For Ellis Paul, house concerts allow him to connect with fans in a personal way that has helped sustain him, musically and financially. He says many of his friends started out as fans. His two most recent albums have been entirely fan-funded. “The people who listen to my music raised $115,000 for my most recent CD,” he says. “I feel supported and taken care of. That’s a nice thing, because I’d like to keep doing this for another 20 or 30 years.”
Sanborn’s plans call for four or five small shows each year, all to be held at the Wynfield clubhouse. “We have a strong core of faithful supporters, but we need to grow that core,” he says. “I don't want to distract anyone from the Charlotte music scene. [Wherever] musicians play, get out there and support them.” Who knows? Sanborn himself may yet take the stage with his guitar. But for now, he’s happy to play host.
Learn more at homefrontmusicseries.com Tickets are generally in the $12 to $15 range.