Jim Morrison in his backyard, pre-tent setup. Photo by David Uhrin
"We all listen to music on our phones now. But it's a different experience to have it happen 20 feet in front of you," says Jim Morrison.
And he would know. For 18 years the longtime journalist and music writer has been hosting intimate acoustic concerts on the back lawn of his Norfolk home … and not just any shows. His North Shore Point House Concerts offers up acclaimed Americana singers, established bluegrass, folk and blues pickers, stripped-down rock 'n' rollers and even a few Grammy winners—national acts that might normally bypass Coastal Virginia stages (see list).
Lately, Morrison's nonprofit venture has been booking more shows in actual venues—like Old Dominion University's Goode Theatre, Boathouse Live in Newport News, Norfolk's Toast and the Virginia Arts Festival courtyard. It's hard work—and he doesn't pay himself—but the former Virginian-Pilot staffer bristles at being called a promoter. "No, this is just a hobby. This is just for fun."
With a $20 suggested donation—"if someone wants to play $10, fine and if they want to give $50, even better"—Morrison says that his nonprofit backyard and pop-up concerts attract a distinctive, attentive crowd.
"These are people who don't normally go to music shows. They come because it's a spring, summer, early fall night. The crickets are chirping, they've got their picnic basket and a bottle of wine." He has written that the 200-capacity house concerts are about "exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience."
Case in point: Last year's appearance by acclaimed Austin, Texas singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, who spontaneously decided to unplug himself during his encore in order to freely sing and play in the aisles with the people. It was a magical moment enjoyed by everyone—a regular occurrence at a North Shore Point event.
"I think there's a demand and an interest in the performers he's bringing and to see them in smaller places," Robert Cross, the executive director of the Virginia Arts Festival, has said. "I think some of these artists, even though they might play bigger venues, appreciate the more intimate interaction they can have with the audience."
Sam Baker, 2014
Carrie Rodriquez, 2014
Sam Baker, 2014. Photos by Jim Morrison/North Shore Point
North Shore Point was one of the first in a growing national house concert trend and is rare among popups in that it offers artists a guaranteed fee. "The standard is usually whatever anyone throws in a bowl, but we don't do that." Word has gotten out in the industry—he fields multiple pitches each week from agents—although he does battle a lingering stigma.
“I wanted to bring in one artist and I was dealing with a big agency. They said, ‘She's not up for a house concert. Her guarantee is $1,500.’ And I told them that the lowest I paid out to an artist last year was $2,250. But some see ‘house concert,’ and they think it's like Wayne's World and it will be six guys in a basement with some Bud Lights."
Morrison's pitch includes optional room and board for the touring artists, and they often return because of the bed-and-breakfast hospitality and signature home cooked meals. “After we had Peter Case come in, I wanted him back,” he laughs. “And his manager said, ‘Peter will come back, but you have to make him the salmon you made last time.’”
Chris Smither, 2014
Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, 2017
Steve Forbert, 2013
Todd Snider, 2017 at Robin Hixon Theater
Morrison's neighbors on Runnymede Road are overwhelmingly supportive (or tolerant) of the occasional inconvenience, he says, but he knows the limits. “People like the shows and want to attend but by (city) ordinance, I'm only supposed to do four backyard shows a year.”
In expanding out, North Shore Point has partnered on shows with LAVA Presents promoter Josh Coplon and is now booking a summer series in ODU's new Goode Theatre (with LAVA, he recently brought indie rock favorite Hiss Golden Messenger there for the new hall's first-ever concert), to include Backyard veteran Della Mae and bluegrass kings Chatham County Line. “At ODU, the people are close to the stage, so it's a little like that backyard feel," he says, "or the vibe from one of the shows we do at the Virginia Arts Festival courtyard."
The longtime music critic likes to program a mix of proven favorites—acclaimed songstress Kim Richey made her fourth backyard appearance in April—but concentrates on acts fresh to the area. The goal has always been to turn people on to new sounds. “I've been writing about music around here a long time," the not-a-promoter says. “If I can't get X number people to come out to listen to new music after all of these years, I'm not doing my job.”
For more on North Shore Point Concerts, visit NorthShorePoint.com.
July 14: Della Mae at ODU's Goode Theatre
July 27: The Bottle Rockets at Virginia Arts Festival Courtyard, Norfolk
Aug. 2: Chatham County Line at ODU's Goode Theatre
Aug. 3: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison: Beautiful Lie Tour at ODU’s Goode Theatre
Sept. 20: Robbie Fulks in the backyard
31 Artists Hosted by North Shore Point Concerts
1. Todd Snider
2. Lloyd Cole
3. Eric Andersen
4. Alejandro Escovedo
5. Chuck Prophet
6. Dave Alvin
7. Jimmie Dale Gilmore
8. Kevin Welch
9. Robbie Fulks
10. Garland Jeffreys
11. Peter Case
12. Marshall Crenshaw
13. Don Dixon and Marti Jones
14. Carrie Rodriguez
15. Amy Rigby
16. Steve Forbert
17. Jim Lauderdale
18. Jason Ringenberg (Jason and the Scorchers)
19. Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo)
20. Susan Cowsill (Cowsills)
21. David Olney
22. Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin
23. Sam Baker
24. Chris Smither
25. Karla Bonoff
26. Gary Louris (The Jayhawks)
27. Nellie McKay
28. The Black Lillies
29. Eliza Gilkyson
30. Kelly Willis
31. Robbin Thompson
Some of Jim Morrison's Favorite Backyard Moments
1. "1917" —David Olney
Olney's "1917" may be the perfect song, the story of a young man spending the night with a French prostitute before going off to war. He opened it with an acapella version of a British drinking song about officers avoiding conflict while privates hang on the old barbed wire. It's a haunting performance.
2. "Barley" —Birds of Chicago
Alli Russell and her partner J.T. Nero perform this emotional story of family and legacy.
3. "Cigarette State" —Robbie Fulks
The extended and wild and crazy encore features superb playing from Fulks’ mates, audience heckling and his wit.
4. "Oh Mama" —Aoife O'Donovan
She leads an encore singalong under the big tent in a raging storm.
5. "Till I'm Too Old to Die Young" —Kevin Welch
Welch’s tender song written about his daughter and played on the eve of her having a child, complete with background by the crickets.
6. "Always a Friend" —Alejandro Escovedo
Escovedo tells the story of going to his first Springsteen concert and getting a text saying Bruce wants to perform this song with him.
7. “Marie, Marie" —Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore
The duo with an acoustic version of the only Cajun/zydeco standard written at a kitchen table in Downey, Calif.
3 Favorite Home-Cooked Meals at North Shore Point
1. Seared wild salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce (Aoife O'Donovan, Peter Case, Mary Gauthier, Robbie Fulks, Mipso, Kelly Willis, Gary Louris, others)
2. Ancho chile coffee braised short ribs (Travis Meadows, Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters)
3. Honey-gingered pork tenderloin (David Olney, Della Mae, Kevin Welch, The Secret Sisters)