It's the classic money-versus-art conundrum. Bars are where the money is, relatively speaking, but they are far from ideal when a group is trying to connect with an audience and hone its craft. "People are shouting 'Free Bird' at you," Finders said.
And the alternatives to bars aren't necessarily significant improvements. Coffeehouses and bookstores might not have the smoke and alcohol, but patrons are typically there for other reasons and don't give musicians their undivided attention. Bookstores, Finders said, "are like you're trading beers for books."
Over the past couple years, though, two Quad Cities venues have been providing musicians and lovers of folk music quiet, intimate settings for concerts. Marycrest International University began its series of CliftonCrest House Concerts about a year and a half ago, while the Unitarian Church on Eastern Avenue began its Perpetual Folk Fest concerts soon after.
Mike and Amy Finders will open the Perpetual Folk Fest season with an outdoor picnic and concert on Saturday, August 11, while the CliftonCrest series gets underway on August 28 with Darryl Purpose. Perpetual Folk Fest concerts are held at the Unitarian Church, while CliftonCrest shows take place at Marycrest's Clifton Manor.
Both series grew out of the "house concert" movement that's become popular over the past decade. House concerts are just what their name suggests - musical performances in somebody's home. A host family will typically give the musician lodging and food and whatever donations are offered at the door. True to the grassroots nature of house concerts, marketing is usually limited to e-mail alerts and other no- or low-cost Internet options.
If not exactly "house concerts," these two local concert series certainly come from the same spirit - intimate and interactive.
Mary Edwards, who coordinates the CliftonCrest House Concerts, said performers have been seeking out series such as Marycrest's. "I'm just amazed," she said. She gets several inquiries a week from performers.
"They are really eager to play," said Karen Hindhedy, who organizes the Unitarian Church's series. "The word of mouth about a new venue has spread like wildfire."
The reasons for their popularity among performers are pretty simple: "They have a listening audience, they don't have the background noise, they don't have the smoke," Edwards said.
"There's more of a connection, or a rapport" between performer and audience, Hindhedy said. That becomes especially apparent during songs that involve audience participation. At the Perpetual Folk Fest, musicians generally play for 45 minutes, and then take a 15-minute intermission during which they can interact with the audience before a second 45-minute set.
Finders said house-style concerts are his favorite. "The gigs that are set up as concert settings are the best," he said.
The two concert series developed independently, and they don't coordinate their schedules or slates of artists. This causes some concern, because audiences to this point have been modest.
CliftonCrest averages approximately 30 people per concert, Edwards said, but the range has been from 15 to 65 people. Hindhedy said the Perpetual Folk Fest series has averaged 50 people per concert.
While "intimate" is one of the attractions of these concerts, neither series wants to be so intimate that it can't draw performers. CliftonCrest offers performers the door, while the Perpetual Folk Fest gives half the door or a guaranteed amount, whichever is higher.
Yet Hindhedy said she's confident both concert series can survive. She said that generally, each Perpetual Folk Fest concert drew more people than the previous one, and that the Quad Cities are big enough to support two folk-music series.
Hindhedy had been involved in a folk series at a Unitarian church near Chicago, and when she came to the Quad Cities, "I was looking for good music." When she didn't find any venues for folk music, she approached the church board with the idea of a concert series. "They loved the idea," she said.
"It seemed viable," Hindhedy said, "but could we get people in the door, keep the musicians happy?"
The answer so far has been yes.
Hindhedy estimates that about half the concerts' audience came from the Unitarian Church, while half came from the community. "I want this to be an event that's open to the community," she said.
Baby Boomers have been a "large, consistent crowd" at the Perpetual Folk Fest, Hindhedy said, but last year, the group Wishing Chair drew people in their 20s and 30s.
Edwards said the CliftonCrest House Concerts have largely drawn Boomers. Even when acclaimed roots singer-songwriter Dave Moore opened last year's CliftonCrest slate outdoors on a beautiful day, Marycrest students weren't engaged.
Edwards thinks that some younger people are scared away by the "folk" label and its '60s connotations. Yet a lot of today's folk music comes as much from the family tree of '90s alternative music - singers-songwriters such as Shawn Colvin, Ani DiFranco, and the Indigo Girls - as from the protest songs of 30 and 40 years ago. And a lot of it is personal rather than political.
One performer in that vein is Purpose, a bear of a man with great stories to tell. He was at one point in his life considered one of the world's best blackjack players, then he turned to social activism, and finally songwriting and performing. If he was once something of an underworld legend, he's now earned a slightly more respectable title: He's considered one of the best storytellers in the country. Purpose's concert at Clifton Manor later this month promises to be special.
If gambling promised empty riches, folk music is generally a pretty safe bet for long-term scraping by. That's certainly been the experience of the Finders, who spent three years performing full-time.
"I didn't think we'd ever get rich," Finders said. He and his wife did want to meet their expenses, and "we've been able to do that."
But with two children, he said, the duo wants to start getting ahead and saving. The family recently moved to Iowa City from Galena, so he can get a master's degree and go back to teaching. "We're a little tired of being broke all the time."
Mike Finders, now 32, and Amy, now 26, first worked together when he provided guitar accompaniment to her singing. Thus began a struggle between a human relationship and a love of songs. "The music was so good, we really didn't want to let the romantic potential get in the way," he said. That hesitancy didn't last long, and the couple has made good on both its musica l and romantic potential. You'll get a chance to hear the fruits this weekend at the Unitarian Church.
Perpetual Folk Fest Concerts
Unitarian Church, 3707 Eastern Avenue, Davenport
7 p.m., $8 suggested donation
August 11: Mike and Amy Finders (country blues, bluegrass, and folk from Iowa City, 6 p.m. picnic, 6:30 p.m. concert)
October 13: BeJae Fleming (blues folk from Ames, Iowa)
December 8: Peter Mayer (singer-songwriter from Minnesota)
February 9: Daddy Squeeze & The Doctor (Southern-style folk - including Delta Blues, Cajun, and zydeco - from Nebraska)
April 13: Judy Cook (traditional folk songs and ballads from Maryland)
CliftonCrest House Concerts
Clifton Manor, 1607 West 12th Street, Davenport
7:30 p.m., $10 donation
August 28: Darryl Purpose (singer-songwriter known for his storytelling), Jason Eslick (Quad Cities singer-songwriter and teacher)
September 8: Anne Hills (singer-songwriter known for her great voice and direct songwriting)
September 12: Amy Martin (eastern Iowa native and 1995 graduate of Augustana College)
September 26: Michael Smith (songwriter whose work has been recorded by more than 30 performers)
October 3: Andrew McKnight & Mary Byrd Brown (McKnight's folk, blues, and bluegrass combined with Brown's rich vocals and guitar)
October 5: Linda Allen (singer-songwriter known for connecting with audiences)
October 21: Suzanne McDermott (thoughtful songwriting with a soulful voice)
November 1: Dennis Warner (up-tempo acoustic folk/country with a sense of humor)
November 11: Chris Proctor (finger-style guitarist and composer known for his innovation and versatility)
November 16: Emily Kaitz (deadpan performer well-regarded for her acuity with satire and earnest emotion)