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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 06:29 am

Ann Bova’s musical magic

The Cabin Concerts return to Springfield

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PHOTO BY KARI ABATE

When Ann Bova first began the Cabin Concert music series, the idea of friends playing songs in her home and then inviting other friends to come listen seemed a given, a very natural thing to do. From a childhood immersed in acoustic music and a lifetime of performing, listening and absorbing all kinds of music, she developed a deep love and appreciation for song. Through this vital sense of how music touches, heals and bonds the human spirit, she shared her vision with hundreds of listeners through various music performers during the three-year run of the extremely popular series that began in 2004.

After the concerts’ demise, Bova satisfied her musical desires performing on standup bass with local entertainers and instigating jam sessions with numerous cohorts in the music world as frequently as possible. She attended concerts and helped to present local music shows, but nothing fulfilled that space of musical expression quite like hosting the Cabin Concerts.

“Music is my natural habitat. I love what music does, how it connects people,” she said. “It helps us realize our sameness and our differences melt away. It’s a universal language that I love being a part of and one of the reasons I wanted to start the Cabin Concerts again.”

The original setting for her intimate, acoustic music shows came into being while living in rural Pleasant Plains at the spacious, log cabin home of her then-partner Joe Bohlen. As Bova tells the story, while she rehearsed with her old-time folk music band, The Threshers, for a First Night Springfield show, Bohlen commented on how good the music sounded in the cabin. Then came Bohlen’s momentous, offhand comment of, “Too bad we couldn’t do live music here,” to which Bova quickly replied, “We sure can.”

From that spark the Cabin Concerts burst from idea into reality. The first show featured Bova’s high school friend, singer-songwriter-performer Wil Maring and her bluegrass-based band, Shady Mix. The entire experience was such a resounding success, what could be done but to book more shows? The first year she hosted mostly friends, including the husband-wife duo of Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle, and the bassist for Alison Krauss, John Pennell, and his band, Troubled Water. Building on that success she then planned for the second year, scheduling six concerts, three each in the spring and fall, with the performers playing two shows per weekend. She often added educational workshops to fill out the weekend for the artists and give local performers a chance to learn from the accomplished musicians.

Wil Maring at the original Cabin Concerts.

“I never read the rules on hosting house concerts until years later,” Bova said. “When I did, I found out I did it all wrong.”

In a thoughtfully accidental way she had stumbled upon a national phenomenon of having music shows in the home, or house concerts, as they are popularly called. Promoted as the saving grace of live music shared in intimate settings, house concerts enjoy a mythic charm for the majority of self-promoting, working-for-a-living artists who inhabit a marketing space below the major concert and theater level but above the coffeehouse and bar/club scene. Acoustic singer-songwriters and traditional old-time players especially blossom in house concerts and listening-room environments, where subtlety and nuance are integral parts of the music performance.

The rules that Bova never read are available at www.concertsinyourhome.com, a Web site focusing on how to begin and run a successful house concert and includes a list of performers who would love to play in your living room. Her interpretation of presenting performers comes from a very different perspective than the average music lover who decides to hire a favorite singer-songwriter and invite several friends (for a fee) to a concert in their home.

“I learned about life on the road with our bluegrass band Diamonds in the Rough, where you’d travel all weekend to play for lots of fun, but very little pay,” said Bova. “I wanted to make a venue where musicians could get what they deserved — one that honors the artist and makes them glad they played there.”

That she did. By giving all admission money to the artist, feeding them wonderful meals and putting them up for the weekend, she created a space that nurtured, inspired and thrilled all who played there. It also allowed her to get almost anybody she wanted in the acoustic, folk-bluegrass world, including Gerry O’Beirne, a renowned guitarist and singer-songwriter from Ireland.

“I listened to his CD, Half Moon Bay, every night when I cooked dinner at home in the cabin,” said Bova. “We loved that record and one night we just thought we should get Gerry to play here.”

After a few phone calls and assorted e-mails, O’Beirne was on the Cabin Concerts schedule. Another find during the search for quality entertainment was Sally Barris, a Grammy-nominated, Nashville-based songwriter who is also a performing artist. Bova was on the John Prine Web site, checking on the possibility of bringing Prine to her house for a concert, and caught a link to Barris’ site.

“As soon as I heard Sally sing I knew I had to have her at the Concerts,” said Bova. “And my audience loved her. I knew they would like her as much as I did.”

That leads to a few more of the reasons for Bova’s success in choosing artists for her shows. First, she goes on instinct and picks what she likes. She then picks from what she likes to fit what her audience would enjoy. She also generally gets artists who are personal friends or who come recommended by friends. The only real standard she maintains is making sure it’s acoustic and excellent. The result of this fine-tuned choosing of performers makes for a very happy audience that returns again and again.

Bova relates a telling story about Dick Durbin, our senior U.S. senator from Illinois, and a Cabin Concert regular. The avowed music fan used to look at the list of scheduled performers and didn’t recognize any of the names. Then, she said, he realized it didn’t matter if he had heard of them or not, he enjoyed every show he’d been to at the Cabin.

“It’s a level of trust that developed with the crowd as we went along,” Bova explains. “The caliber of music we had was that good.”

Unfortunately when the relationship between Bova and Bohlen ended, so did the Cabin Concerts. The last show at the cabin in the country was in 2006. Though she had bookings in the works for another season, it was not to be. Bohlen stayed in the house and Bova moved to Springfield where she continued working in professional Naprapathy, a branch of Complimentary Manual Medicine.

“I’m very grateful to Joe for opening his house to doing concerts,” she said. “Our home had a reputation as one of the finest venues of its type in the country. Claire Lynch said playing in the cabin was like playing inside an instrument.”

As recently as a few weeks ago when Bova attended the International Folk Alliance music conference in Memphis, Tenn., she found her reputation preceded her. When mentioning she once hosted the Cabin Concerts in Pleasant Plains, Ill., musicians and promoters remembered hearing about the venue, and why wouldn’t they? In the rough and tumble world of scrambling for gigs and dollars and trying to book tours to promote new CDs and dealing with coffeehouse crumb dates, barroom drunk tanks and nights on the road alone in hotel rooms or car back seats, a good house concert venue is a memorable place to be.

To those who might think it peculiar, this idea of inviting musicians into your house to perform, it does seem to take a special kind of person to open their home to strangers and host a concert in the living room. Bova claims to come by it naturally, growing up in southern Illinois with a family absorbed by music. Her father, Dale Whiteside, was a professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and a dedicated, enthusiastic ethnomusicologist, which means he not only played music, he studied it as well. Bova recalls growing up without television, but with plenty of music instruments available at all times.

“Whenever we’d go visit other people we hardly left the house without our instruments and when guests would come see us they usually arrived ready to play,” she said. “That’s just how it was. Bringing music into the house was a natural thing.”

Her father hosted annual bluegrass festivals and jam sessions on the family farm for years, a tradition Bova’s brother continues to uphold. A weekend is set aside and friends come from all over, set up camp in the orchard area, and pick and play all day and all night. There are bonfires, cookouts, drinks and, of course, many a song circle, pickin’ party, and all around jamming in every direction. Bova as you might expect is everywhere at once, playing her bass or guitar, singing and encouraging everyone to participate.

“It’s an itch or a chromosome disorder. I need to do this. It’s part of who I am,” she said. “When the Cabin Concerts stopped, so many people missed it, especially me. Now that we’ve started up again, the response has been overwhelming. It’s a magical moment.”

Many times the word magic came up when discussing the reason for the success of the music series. Magic is a very open-ended word that means many things to many people; yet it somehow describes this feeling that seems indescribable or at least undeterminable. What is this thing that people feel when entranced by music and words, this feeling of euphoria mixed with elation and rapture that is so hard to explain but so wonderful to feel?

“One of the key factors is the intimacy of the setting. That’s where the magic comes in,” said Bova. “I’m not willing to compromise on that. It’s why it works, because of the music in the setting creating this overall magical, musical experience.”

Locating a suitable spot where Bova could work her magic is the main reason it took so long to book another show under the Cabin Concert name. She bases much of her decision making on personal inspiration, and designs her venue with a keen sense of aesthetics, resulting in a mix of spirituality and practicality that allows a show to feel good, look great, and exude enchantment while running smoothly, on time and without a hitch in service, sound quality or space usage. It’s a gift that serves the audience well and suits the schedule of a few high-quality shows per year, rather than the more frequent bookings most venues require to stay in business.

But along with that choice of doing shows when she chooses came the handicap of finding a location. Without a home that doubles as an occasional venue, Bova searched for a place that suited her tastes in setting and that was available on an as-needed basis. When she discovered Gerry O’Beirne was touring the Midwest around the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, it seemed the Cabin Concerts were destined to live again, if only she could find the right spot.

“I had to find a room with an intimate feel. That’s why it took two years to start again,” she said. “I can’t do it in a theater. We need a listening-room environment.”

She found it at a place that has gone through a few different names and proprietors in the last several years. Now called Upstairs at Charles and Limey’s in Phil’s Lounge, most recently before that it was the Loft, and is likely best known to the community as the really neat place above where Baur’s Restaurant used to be. The upstairs room seats about 120 patrons comfortably with bare brick walls, rounded windows and wooden beams giving the room a warm and natural feel and sound. There’s a nice-sized stage in the corner opposite from the entrance (not so common as one might think in music venues), various heights of tables and chairs to allow for good sight lines, and a staff willing to work with Bova’s idea of what a venue needs to be and do for a Cabin Concert experience.

“We’re no longer a house concert. It’s now a listening-room setting,” she said. “We can host the music, but we don’t have to move the furniture anymore.”

That’s not quite true because she’ll likely be scooting tables around and exchanging bar stools with lower seated chairs to improve someone’s view and make the room more appealing and accessible. Overall there are many differences between hosting a concert in the home versus taking it to a public place. But then again, many basics remain the same.

“Being able to bring great artists into an intimate setting where you aren’t tiers away in a balcony means so much to me,” said Bova. “Performers like it. They feed off it and the audience feeds off that. Barriers are down. It’s about connecting.”

Many other good things happen as well. The audience can visit with performers before and after the show and during breaks, buy merchandise directly from the artist, ensuring all the money earned goes straight to the source, and continue the longtime tradition of sharing live music within an intimate atmosphere.

Now that the New Cabin Concerts are rolling along, Bova is in contact with musician friends and well into booking the rest of 2009 in earnest. An updated Web site is in the works at www.thecabinconcerts.com and there is talk of producing a CD sampler of songs from previous concert performers. The shows almost always sell out and all seats are sold in advance, so get in on the act early if you want to attend. In fact the upcoming O’Beirne show is already full. Future artists on the very-likely-to-come-true wish list of top-shelf artists from the diverse, acoustic music world include the likes of Tim O’Brien, Robinella, Missy Raines, Jack Williams and others that tickle the fancy and strike a chord with the enterprising and spirited Bova.

“This only works if it inspires me. It’s a labor of love,” she said. “Songwriters and musicians are here to pass on the stories and songs, and we need to hear them. It’s an essential part of being human.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com

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