Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: A special kind of concert -- in the house

03/18/2012 12:00 AM

03/20/2012 2:14 PM

Up and down a sleepy, tree-lined residential street in Davis, all is quiet and dark on this Sunday evening, save occasional flickering blue TV light leaking from drawn living-room curtains.

Homeowners, swaddled in the succor of suburbia, are ready to call it a night and brace for the work-week ahead.

But at Bill Wagman's house, the tan one with the porch light burning, something is afoot. A phalanx of cars – more than a few hybrids; this is Davis, after all – line his and his neighbors' curbs.

A trickle of people amble up the walkaway, knock softly, enter smiling and slip Wagman some greenbacks, 10s and 20s mostly, which he stuffs in the back pocket of his jeans. They make themselves at home in the living room, lined six rows deep with folding chairs and a sofa wedged off to the side.

There they find a slight man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a corduroy shirt, slouched in a chair. Being a good host, Wagman, 66, makes the introductions.

"This is Chuck," he says.

Chuck is Chuck Brodsky, a veteran singer-songwriter from North Carolina who a few nights earlier performed before 900 at the Uptown Theater in Napa. But in a few minutes, this folkie who's a staple on the festival circuit will be playing before – oh, it looks like maybe 30 – on Monarch Lane.

House concerts, which have been around since primitive man first constructed shelter and carved instruments, have seen a revival in recent years as venues for folk and bluegrass have withered and the more sedate baby-boomer audience shies away from raucous clubs.

Most house shows are sporadic, even one-off propositions, though Sharon Carl has been holding them steadily in Auburn since 2007.

Wagman has opened his home – and pantry – to singers and fans since 1993. Many singers also appear on his weekly radio show on KDVS, UC Davis' campus station.

It's a money-losing venture, actually, for the retired UC Davis IT worker. That wad of cash in Wagman's back pocket? It will all go to Brodsky.

When the living room starts filling – mostly Davisites, but a small Sacramento and Woodland contingent, too – Brodsky slips away to Wagman's "Green Room," a book-lined study just down the hall from the bathroom. He can be heard tuning and strumming his guitar, punctuated with the occasional vocal murmur.

Wagman, meanwhile, attends to the guests' needs, which are few. The chips and guacamole are already out, as are the Milano cookies and water bottles. He gives a vigorous shake to the Santa Cruz Organic Lemonade bottle, then cracks the lid.

"A lot of the bigger venues are not willing to do this because they're trying to make a living at it," Wagman says. "It's a place for (folk artists) to come and play, because otherwise they wouldn't. I've been doing this long enough that (musicians) know it. It's to the point I don't actively (seek them out). They come to me."

Over the years, Wagman has altered his home to a make it more concert-friendly. He razed the wall separating the dining and living rooms, creating an expansive space. But he doesn't opt for fancy decor. Concertgoers are free to espy his book shelf (not one, but two copies of the "Whole Earth Catalog"), DVD collection (an affinity for director Terry Gilliam) and his retro turntable.

At showtime, Wagman turns off the hall light, further burnishing the tawny walls and wood floors, fostering a warm ambience. Brodsky walks "onstage" – a three-foot space between the book shelf and the first row of folding chairs – to hearty applause.

By choice, he's doing an unplugged set in the term's strictest sense: no amplification. No mike, no sound system. Just a man and his guitar. But because it's such a small setting, his sound resonates.

Between-song patter – a staple for folkies – becomes even more intimate in close quarters. That invisible wall between performer and listener disintegrates.

At one point, a woman on the couch pipes up, "Hey, Chuck, can you play the one about the guy (baseball player) who pitched on LSD?"

"Doc Ellis!" a man nearby exclaims.

Brodsky smiles at the back and forth.

"Later," he cracks, "when the acid kicks in."

Brodsky is at ease because he's performed at house concerts in more than 20 states.

"It's still all about communicating with people," he will say later. "In a big show, I may not be able to see the faces far back, but I certainly can see the first few rows. That makes it feel intimate in its own way. But this (a house concert) is not show business, and that's what I love about it. I don't approach music as show business, and I hope I never will."

That's not to say he's slacking off. In a two-hour set, he plays songs both from his new album and gems from deep in his 10-album oeuvre. Fans shout requests, and he gamely tries to remember verses from early works he hasn't played in years.

Near the end, a few minutes before repairing to the kitchen to meet fans and sell CDs, Brodsky serenades the crowd with a tune fitting for the occasion:

For the kindness of strangers

I often give thanks

Some have fed me and clothed me

Some have filled up my tanks

Some have taken me inside

of their humble abodes

Given me sanctuary

on this Goddamned Blessed Road


For more information on upcoming shows at Bill Wagman's house concert series in Davis, go to www.wagmanhouse

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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