Sometimes, home is where the folk music is By Scott Alarik, Globe Correspondent, 02/21/99
SUDBURY - You know you're not going to Symphony Hall when your concert reservation is confirmed with the following note: ''Please bring an extra pair of shoes or socks as we would like everyone to leave their wet shoes in the front hall.''
Where you are going is to one of the hottest and most whispered-about new venues in New England, the Fox Run House Concert series in Sudbury. It's a first-rate, professionally run concert series, much talked about on the national folk circuit, produced in the sprawling, comfortable home of psychologist Laurie Laba and Neale Eckstein, a dentist locally renowned for using lapdogs as ''relaxation therapy'' for nervous patients.
For the Jan. 30 concert of the Hingham folk-blues phenom Les Sampou and the fast-rising Wellesley songwriter Jenny Reynolds, the crowd of 55 began piling in a little after 7 p.m., dutifully taking off their shoes before taking their covered dishes over to the buffet table in the dining room.
People are encouraged to bring food to share, along with clothes for the homeless teenagers' and battered women's shelters the concert series benefits. Neither Laba nor Eckstein makes a dime on the shows, giving all the proceeds to charity, after paying the performers. A $10 artists' donation is requested, in addition to the charitable contribution.
"Doing this series has given us a whole new interest in music,'' Eckstein said. ''We had all but given up on going to live concerts, because the choices were going to smoke-filled bars, which we definitely can't handle, or to large venues, at which we would stand around, getting bumped and screamed at, thinking, `Y'know, I'm just too old for this.'"
Laba added: "There's a sense of shared experience that we lost as the music venues got bigger and the crowds got louder. We've enjoyed getting that back. A big part of the fun for me is seeing Neale get back into music. That was something he missed in his life, and now he's playing his guitar again."
As might be expected, the story of how the Fox Run series got started is an odd one. Laba had gotten to know Mary Pittari, who works at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., through an Internet chat room. Pittari had become a fan of the singer-songwriter scene through the local college coffeehouse, and persuaded Laba and Eckstein to attend a folk concert at Somerville Theater. They loved it and wondered about doing a show in their home as a benefit for local charity. Pittari said she'd find out if such a thing was possible.
"I checked around on Internet folk music lists and became very much aware of the growing phenomenon of house concerts,'' Pittari said. ''The first show, in June of 1997, was planned as a one-time thing, but by the time it happened, I had really gotten the bug. I said, look, if you'll let me do it, I'll do all the booking, the promotion. Just let me use the house."
Of course, it is an enormous amount of work for Laba and Eckstein to set up each concert, run the sound, and handle the phone reservations. But Pittari had accurately reasoned that nearly all the business could be handled over the Internet and by e-mail from her Clinton home. She e-mails notices of the monthly concerts to the nearly 800 people on their mailing list and does all the booking by phone.
Even in the grass-roots world of folk music, where people think nothing of going to church basements to catch shows, the house concert is something of a radical notion. According to David Tamulevich, whose Fleming-Tamulevich agency manages or books such hot national folk stars as Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, John Gorka, and Utah Phillips, the house concert is fast becoming a national phenomenon.
"It's not growing in New England as much as some places,'' he said from his Michigan office, ''because there is such a healthy tradition of church coffeehouses. It's impossible to keep track of them all, but it would be safe to say there are three to 500 active house concert series around the country, which is three or four times what there was five years ago. And more of them are very well run. Fox Run is an amazing example of that."
It is simply impossible to pad about in stockinged feet and put on much in the way of airs. A few minutes before showtime recently, Sampou was cheerfully chatting away by the snack table, while Reynolds was seen in the corner of the kitchen mournfully eyeing her socks in the corner of the kitchen. The glimmerings of a toe-hole could be seen in one, a revelation she said afterward had helped her show.
"I haven't had that many gigs where I take my shoes off," she said. "Suddenly, I felt self-conscious, until I remembered seeing George Winston play at Symphony Hall with rag socks on. When I was playing, I kept going back and forth in my head, saying, `OK, I'm at a gig, gotta focus, gotta concentrate,' to, `Hey, I'm in my socks here; just let loose and play.'"
She appeared utterly comfortable during her opening set, even teasing her parents in the audience, to the delight of the crowd, and her smartly pretty songs were received with rapt attention.
Sampou is a superbly personal performer, capable of ripping off rafter-raising blues tunes and then turning even grand concert halls into house concerts with her intimate balladry. She entranced the crowd to the point of having to jokingly dismiss the repeated shouts for encores. By that time, the ambience was so warm and comfy, so homey, that such adulation, however well-intentioned and deserved, seemed strangely out of place.
"I do house concerts all the time," she said, "and this one is extraordinary. Most of them are more of a party than a show, but this one is the best of both."
People lingered by the snack table for a long time after the show, visiting with the performers and among themselves. It didn't just feel like a party now; it had become one.
Nancy Ramer of Taunton has been to all but two of the Fox Run shows.
"I just love the intimacy of the gathering, the comfort," she said. "When you go to bigger shows, the artists have an unapproachability. You know, they're up there and you're down here. Everybody's regular people here."
Judy Caporiccio of Walpole, who teaches at the Westwood Middle School, overheard her friend and strolled over to agree. She said she'd once been a nightclub habituee and remembered seeing Billy Joel at the old jazz mecca Paul's Mall. But as pop got bigger and bigger, moving from nightclub to concert hall to hockey arena it had less to offer her. Through Fox Run, she's reconnected with her love of music, just as Laba and Eckstein have, and now goes to a coffeehouse most weekends.
"But I'd always rather be here," she said. "Even when I go to a coffeehouse after this, I feel uncomfortable; it seems so crowded. You end up feeling so close to the artists after you see them here."
This story ran on page 01 of the Boston Globe's West Weekly on 02/21/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.