Typically, aspiring singer-songwriters try to raise their profiles by taking gigs in ever-larger venues and by working their butts off to make that jump from opening act to headliner. Ruth Gerson has been doing just that for the better part of the ’90s. Now she’s trying to hit it big by thinking small. Very small.
Gerson, a New York City-based folk-rock vocalist, has performed widely in America, Europe, and Israel, attracting favorable notices in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker. She’s recorded four CDs, including WISH, released just last month. She’s played the Newport Folk Festival twice and opened for Hootie & the Blowfish, the Dave Matthews Band, and Lisa Loeb. On Jan. 4, she’ll appear as Conan O’Brien’s first musical act of the new millennium.
But when Gerson came to D.C. for a concert last week, she didn’t head to some smoky club, but to Cindy and Rob Newberry’s Dupont Circle town house. In the last year or so, Gerson has done “about 30” living-room concerts around the country. Her idea: to get known among local cognoscenti by hosting a show whose intimacy can’t be beat.
Gerson’s liaison in Washington is Ryan Turner, a college friend and nonprofit wonk by day with zero experience as a pop impresario. Turner e-mailed a couple of his friends seeking a volunteer host, and the Newberrys accepted. Then Turner e-mailed more of his friends, offering a personal—and strictly limited-admittance—concert.
On Saturday night, about 30 people, including many college friends from Gerson’s Princeton days, showed up for light munchies and a 75-minute solo set. (Full disclosure: Gerson and I were next-door neighbors in college.) The crowd was mostly splayed on pillows on the hardwood floors, looking up at Gerson, who was dressed down in casual clothes and athletic socks. Ranging from the understated to the rockin’, Gerson accompanied herself on acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica.
In the midst of her set, Gerson explained her small-is-beautiful philosophy. “I play a lot of longer sets in Europe,” she said, “but at home I do a lot of opening acts, and the fact is, when you play for 15 minutes, there’s really no chance to do everything you want to do.” One day, a friend in Boston suggested doing a concert in her living room. Gerson liked the idea and has continued to implement it whenever she gets the chance.
After the concert, Gerson—who has played before 10,000 fans in Sweden—said the living-room setting “is a lot scarier, because you can see the expression on everyone’s face. But it’s always rewarding, because you really can’t have the same kind of connection with people when you’re playing a big concert.”
She clearly enjoys that connection: Next year, Gerson is shooting for 100 living-room concerts in several cities. She is planning to do another one in D.C. in January. Gerson says to check her Web sites for details: www.ruthgerson.com and www.phunque.com/ruth/gerson.html. —Louis Jacobson