It's Saturday night in Villanova, on a leafy cul-de-sac far from the noisy strip of college bars on Lancaster Avenue, and Phil Minissale – an up-and-coming 24-year-old bluesman and acoustic folksinger - is in the house.
Minissale, with shaggy hair, a thick beard, and a laid-back Dan Fogelberg vibe, is perched on a stool in front of a stone fireplace in host Lee Bowers' living room. He strums such tunes as "Invisible Man" and "Home to Me" for an audience of about two dozen people - some sunk into a large sectional sofa, others on the folding chairs that spill into the kitchen.
Launching into a chugging blues riff, Minissale sings, "Never been so weary in all my 24 years . . .," and gets a big laugh from his new suburban fans, each of whom rang Bowers' doorbell with a potluck dish and a $20 bill for the musician. The irony of this baby-faced 20-something's having a case of the blues resonates for a crowd of 50- and 60-something's who weren't just part of the Woodstock Generation, but in a few cases were actually there in the muck.
"People ask me why I write the blues - you're young, you have to be devastated," Minissale says in a setting where stage patter turns into an intimate living-room chat. "I like to counter with, Remember your high school sweetheart? Anybody with their high school sweetheart out there?" Silence. "Exactly."
Pull up a chair at the Philadelphia area's thriving world of house concerts - an underground music scene where the hipsters wear their ponytails behind bald foreheads, where the comforts of a couch outweigh the hassles of barroom smoke and valet parking, where struggling folk musicians find new fans for a bigger payday, and where the old worries about getting busted by the cops - well, those still exist.
"The problem is that I'm not doing anything illegal, not running a business," said Bowers, a 60-year-old psychologist. "But if one of my neighbors decides they don't like the idea that these musicians are showing up at my house every month, and they want to complain I'm running a business, it costs me tens of thousands of dollars to prove I'm not."
"I still want to stay very, very much beneath the radar," added Bowers, who hosted her first house concert 15 years ago.
She does that by limiting her crowds to a small list of guests whom she personally invites – friends, and friends of friends, and people who've heard about the shows by word of mouth.
These days, however, the biggest problem may not be the cops but the competition.
The house-concert scene in Philadelphia, which has been around for more than a decade, is seeing a surge in venues, thanks to the ability of the Internet to connect performers and fans, and to middle-aged boomers who see a living room as a more attractive venue for live music than a crowded club or a huge sports palace.
Bowers said her attendance has ropped a bit the last couple of years, but that's partly because there now may be as many as four or five house concerts in the region on any given Saturday.
Minissale's accompanist on harmonica, Bob Beach, runs his Concerts at the Beach House at his Lansdowne house. "I have a very understanding wife," said Beach, who is studying for a master's degree in divinity.
The performers "are so at ease in a home setting," said Robbie McLean of Wayne, a friend of Bowers'. "It's so welcoming for them. I feel so at home here. I've stopped going to big Wachovia concerts," referring to the massive arena now known as the Wells Fargo Center. "There's no comparison."
Many well-regarded artists in genres such as folk or acoustic blues – where exposure through radio, TV, or well-promoted concerts is minimal to nonexistent – have turned to house parties as a way to gain fans, one oversize suburban family room at a time.
The Downingtown-raised Minissale, relaxing in the kitchen with a Yuengling Lager after his first set, said house concerts are now roughly one-third of the 125 or so shows he does a year. He has played living rooms and dens not just in the western suburbs, but from Wisconsin to New Orleans.
He also plays the club circuit – both on national tours and at local venues – but said house concerts "are my favorite kind of shows. . . . Lots of people don't consider the person on stage a friend. When I play a house concert, I'm not just making fans, I'm making friends."
Minissale and other performers are also making something else at the house concerts: money. Unlike a nightclub or coffeehouse, all the proceeds from the suggested donations go to the artist. That can add up to $400 or so on a night like this, and sometimes much more. Minissale said 90 people showed up at a recent house concert, and including CD sales, he made $1,300.
"That's for a Friday night," he marveled, "for singing, talking, and meeting people."
In contrast, he said, a bar gig might net him from $100 to $150 "before they pay the sound guy."
The hosts on Philadelphia's house-concert circuit are equally enthusiastic about watching and hanging out with their favorite artists.
"It's a great way to see a show, and you don't have to pay a babysitter or pay for parking or anything like that," said Neil Hunt, a lawyer who runs Concerts@Sixth Street in his Media home, though he is taking a paternity break.
He said he started the concert series about 10 years ago after reading an e-mail from a performer who was coming to Philadelphia on a night he couldn't go. The note ended: "If you want me to play in your house, let me know."
Hunt had been organizing three or four shows a year, from solo acoustic acts to a six-piece bluegrass ensemble - typically squeezing 30 to 50 fans into a long but narrow twin.
Jim Brann of Jenkintown has been holding his monthly house concerts - on the first Saturday of nonsummer months - for eight years. Like Bowers, he said he worried sometimes about the neighbors or the police. "But it's certainly not a rowdy crowd - no amplification. People say, 'I did not know where it was – you cannot hear the music,' " he said.
It certainly wasn't rowdy at Bowers' plush Main Line home. During the rush for coffee and cookies at intermission, Ivan Bell of Lafayette Hill - a regular for the last five years - was telling tales of how he made it to both Woodstock and the Atlantic City Pop Festival way back in August 1969 when Minissale popped into the conversation with an even better story, about his father.
His father and an uncle went to the concert and got close enough to hear the music, but "they're in the long line of cars and his brother is like, 'No, man, let's go,' " the affable singer said to the delight of his audience.
It was the kind of musician-meets-fan moment that fuels the house-concert experience and appeals to the core audience, card-carrying members of the Pepsi Generation who now can't imagine getting their music fix any other way.
"You're not crammed into a club, it's not noisy," said Jerry Freedman, 66, of Cheltenham. "It's a nice environment."