Feature | Music

Playing it Forward

“The wide acceptance of DIY culture in Providence allows for a real sense of imagination. We can test the limits. We can ignore the limits.”

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It’s a rainy summer evening in Olneyville Square, and the Providence musical duo Eyeland has just begun its set. 

“Thank you, MacKenzie and Nick,” says singer Ben Knox Miller. “This is their house.” 

The air is ripe with strawberry scented vape smoke and someone’s blowing bubbles. Motion pictures navigating the cosmos are projected on the wall as the low hanging plants above the soundboard cast quivering shadows from the low level feedback. 

It’s the very first home show at Library Court, and vibe curation is the order of the evening. 

Library Court, the residence of artists MacKenzie Holway and Nick Dawson, is one of many performance spaces in homes across the Providence area. Local musicians have championed a network of home shows for over 20 years; however, they have gained traction as of late. A truly relevant spirit of participation has emerged in this artistic community committed to self-sustenance. 

“There are a lot of really radical people running all kinds of places to play,” says Providence musician Roz Raskin. “The impression you get from people is that the DIY sensibility has its own feel, entirely.” 

With these shows, there’s a flash of empowerment in bucking convention that simultaneously meets a practical need for artists. Seven years ago, Roz decided to bring the show on home; her home, to be exact. During that time, she’s booked home shows everywhere she’s lived here in Providence. “The spark is the DIY spirit that says, ‘let’s do it anyway.’ It’s a true punk sensibility; a tradition of that community,” she says. 

This unique brand of grassroots development requires a solid home base, and a network of home shows fosters that, according to Providence singer-songwriter Jess Powers. “Everyone needs to develop their audience, and you can do that so beautifully by helping one another,” she explains. 

That spirit of community overflows from musician to audience in a way that equally energizes the circle of local artists, all in service to the music itself. For Brett Davey, the re-opening of the Columbus Theater in Providence was the catalyst that piqued his interest in hosting shows at his Cranston home. Through shows at the Columbus, he was introduced to new musicians; full-time artists who lived in commitment to sharing their music, complete with all the challenges that come in tandem. “It was important to me to create a comfortable gig with an attentive, intimate audience to help these artists I love,” says Brett. 

Over at Library Court, Brooklyn four-piece, Big Thief, is moving through their set of ephemeral harmonies and dreamy, slow building riffs. The audience sits rapt in a semi-circle at the feet of the band, never squirming or appearing restless. 

“We’ve been looking forward to this our whole tour,” vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker says to the audience. “We have CDs for sale over there by the pretzels. Just leave ten bucks in the basket. And if you don’t have ten bucks, just leave what you can.” 

Home shows have the deliberate benefit of financial viability for these musicians. For Brett, this speaks directly to his emotional investment in growing the musical community by creating opportunities. “Even $5 a head at these shows can get them from gig to gig,” he says. “It can be more beneficial for them to play a home show than play a club; financially, creatively… they have freedom to enjoy themselves.” 

Artists speak to an intuitive level of collaboration in constructing these shows from the ground up. Roz teams up with the creative duo, Mimi; known by and large as Rachel Duarte and partner, MacKenzie. Together, they curate Roz’s performance space, The Boarding House, as an installation art piece. Honing the space accordingly means focusing on the details with a rough-hewn adaptability. And with musicians at the helm, the audience is treated to a heightened quality of sound that contributes – but never competes – with the homespun energy of the experience. 

“The wide acceptance of DIY culture in Providence allows for a real sense of imagination. We can test the limits. We can ignore the limits,” MacKenzie says. “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” 

For Rachel, preserving the intimacy between musician and audience seamlessly requires anticipatory troubleshooting, but with a soft touch that makes room for adaptability. This degree of care and concern has allowed for these shows to exceed even their own expectations. “I didn’t know Providence could be like this,” she says. “We’re all in this magical place right now, nurturing this thing that we love.” 

“Opening up your home to people just feels so special,” Jess says. “Each group brings something different, but there’s a creative spark of compatibility that feels organic because of the safety of the space. Sharing that can really cement relationships.” It’s this radical intimacy and accessibility that creates the underlying feel of spontaneity at a home show; the unshakable and indescribable sense that anything could happen. “Skirting the line between mistake and magic,” she adds, “home shows are just great for that.” 

This cozy, ambient feel isn’t for quiet acts alone. At The Boarding House, musicians are encouraged to plug in and let it rip. Be loud, be weird, but above all else, be open. Because, while The Boarding House is a free space for creativity and expression, there are  social contracts to abide by: No Discrimination, No Sexism, No Assholes. “All nice people are welcome to come,” Roz says with a smile, “but if you’re going to be an asshole, you’re out.” 

Comfort and ease for both musician and audience alike are chief concerns in hosting a show. Touring artists are offered food and amenities, which can come as a shock to a road-weary musician. “When Nicholas Williams (aka Whetherman of Jacksonville, FL) showed up to play, the first thing I asked him was if he wanted a shower,” Brett laughed. By providing touring musicians with gigs they can count on and the security of a cultivated audience, home shows are teeming with an unwavering enthusiasm for bringing people together. 

“Creating a safe space for the audience and musicians feels like the most natural thing in the world. That used to happen all the time,” says Jess. In fact, it’s the modern relevance of adaptability that simultaneously harkens back to the interpersonal quality of the folk, country and blues traditions. In “passing the hat” at a home show, artists are meeting people where they are, and delivering their music to inspire participation and a spirit of contribution. 

Brett’s is that very spirit of contribution married with the soul of a fan; a true music-lover who can’t help but give back to the musicians who inspire him. He regards these shows as a “Snapshot in time of the scene as it is right now.” In true form some of these “snapshots” have developed into full-blown panoramas, as musicians he has hosted move on to play large-scale stages like the Newport Folk Festival. 

“From a selfish perspective, I get to know these tremendously talented artists whose music I love,” he says. But, for this father of two, the biggest benefit in hosting home shows is the lesson in generosity imparted to his young sons. “Opening up your home in support of something you’re passionate about is important for them to learn. But you can’t just tell them. You have to show them.” 

The service of a home show is revealed as an emotional investment in applying a forward thinking view of music, community and humanity, all under their own roof. “You can go as a human being to a show and feel comfortable and welcomed,” says Roz. “And if you leave feeling inspired – like you were part of something? That’s just so much bigger than me, and I’m just lucky that I get to participate in that experience.” 

This community is steeped in a level of innovation that boasts never doing the same thing twice. But where is this nexus headed? “There’s no real long term goal,” says MacKenzie“just a commitment to capitalize on synchronicities, and give as good as we get.” 

Back over at Library Court, it’s midnight and Providence duo, Field Drums, is winding down their set. 

They launch into “This is Where I Belong” by the Kinks. Drummer Rachel Blumberg really lays into her kick drum, but somehow the percussive quality of dancing feet on the hard woods doesn’t get lost in the space. The lyrics seem to hang in the summer air: 

“I can’t think of a place I’d rather be,
The whole wide world doesn’t mean
so much to me,
For this is where I belong,
This is where I belong.” 

A warm gust blows through the open windows, throwing long shadows on the wall as the glittery curtains catch the wind. 

In that flash of a moment, artist and audience are interconnected as they skirt the line between mistake and magic together. And it feels just like coming home.