Keeping Time 3

Mark Charles Heidinger stomps his foot on a wood board to set time, vibrating the deck beneath us. The strum of the acoustic guitar sets the melody; the twang of the steel-pedal guitar layers the tune. Mark leans back and sings in a bold, clear voice into the brisk, evening air: “Dig down deep, don’t fold…for the faintest wind might blow…”

This band—Vandaveer, a scrappy indie folk band touring from Louisville, Kentucky—wasn’t one I had heard before. They’d recorded a handful of records and toured for the last decade but were relatively unknown outside their region. And yet, by the time the last note of the first song dropped from the fragrant summertime air, I could tell this would be a memorable musical experience.

What made it memorable wasn’t that the musicians were better than any I had seen before. They were very good, but what set them apart from other outstanding musicians was the place they were playing in: a backyard. Two dozen of us, including many friends and acquaintances, were sitting on the deck of a friend’s backyard under a sprawling maple tree strung with twinkling bistro lights. Mark, sitting 10 feet in front of us, was crooning his stories to us, and Rose Guerin was drifting in her lovely harmonies. The singers didn’t need mics. The instruments used amps the size of computer speakers. And between each song, Mike talked with us, not to us. He wanted to know his audience. It was personable. It was inspiring. It was intimate.

Vandaveer is one of an increasing number of musicians who are designing tours that circumvent traditional venues. Instead of the often one-way, staged performances at auditoriums, bar, or clubs, these traveling troubadours are seeking out small venues—backyards, living rooms, and small businesses—places that encourage and almost necessitate an exchange between the musician and their audience.

I’ve been to plenty of large concerts, with immense crowds, fancy lighting, and booming speakers. What I enjoy about those concerts is the pulsing energy of the audience and the big, bold expressions of the performers. What I miss is the interaction with the artist. With the musician right in front of you, a layer of separation comes down and you can see much of what is contained in their creative act: the years of practice, the weeks out on the road, the hours of agonizing over which words to put in that song. The musicians become a bit more vulnerable, more human: They laugh at their mistakes, they admit that they are nervous, they tell personal stories of why they wrote the song they’re about to play. In a way, the experience distills why we are attracted to music, and writing and art in the first place: We want to see different expressions of the human experience, we want to hear the stories of others. And many times, we realize their stories are not so different from our own.

Vandaveer was my first backyard concert (and it ended in as mesmerizing a way as it started, with the full moon rising during the last song and Mark stopping to pay tribute to this Montana-sized beauty) and since then I have been to three more. Each musician has offered different melodies and messages, but one thing has held them together: They all want to know their audience and have their audience know them. And it’s this human exchange, this sharing of creativity, that makes these concerts almost as good as having Paul Simon sidle up to your campfire and sing your favorite tune.