Daniel Pingrey calls the unheated underground parking garage where he and Jimmie Linville practice "blissfully unofficial." The local marimba-guitar duo, known as Daniel & the Lion, also give invite-only performances down there between the concrete columns and yellow stall lines.
"We're clearly not disturbing the peace. We're four stories under the ground," said Linville. "Playing in unusual venues is a passion of ours."
Like most working musicians they perform as much as they can - in venues like coffee shops, bars and clubs, sometimes booking two or even three gigs in a day - and they're always keeping their eyes peeled for more opportunities.
The parking garage - the location of which the duo wants to keep secret - is one of the more extreme places they've found, but they also put on shows in more traditional alt-venues like living rooms.
Throughout history, musicians have played wherever they can find or gather an audience. In fact, the concept of going to hear popular and folk music in a club is a relatively recent phenomenon. Mozart gave concerts in parlors. From blues to bluegrass, most American genres of music originated on front porches, not proper stages.
People are increasingly seeking music again in private and unusual locations, a trend that musicians attribute to the recession and to social shifts as well as a simple longing to get away from the club scene, where chatter, video games and televisions tend to compete for attention.
Madison has a few high-profile nontraditional venues. The Project Lodge, which opened early last year in a former pie shop on East Johnson Street, continues to book an impressive variety of high-caliber bands and multimedia shows into the art gallery setting. The atmosphere is welcoming and informal. It's probably the only nonresidential venue where it doesn't seem out of place during a rock show to see someone stroll in off the street and stand in the back eating leftovers out of a Tupperware container.
Revolution Cycles occasionally hosts small invitation-only shows after hours, clearing bikes, tools and gear out of a corner of the Atwood Avenue bike repair shop to make room for the band. Most recently, experimental rock band Mi Ami performed in the shop.
Kiki Schueler, an avid showgoer, opened up her basement on the east side a couple of years ago to both local and touring acts. Her inspiration came when she went to Cafe Montmartre to hear one of her favorite musicians, Ian Moore, and quickly lost patience with the constant background chatter during his set.
"You should play at my house next time," she told him afterward. He did. Since then she's hosted the likes of alt-country singer Robbie Fulks and acoustic singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey. She can fit about 50 people in her basement, and she said the audiences tend to be very attentive to the music - sometimes to the surprise of the musicians.
"Occasionally, they're a little freaked out that everyone's listening," she said.
She's careful not to allow any rowdiness to spill out into the street, and said she hasn't received any complaints from neighbors. Her basement sound system doesn't leak the music outdoors.
Like other house concert hosts, she enjoys getting to know musicians personally.
"Mostly you find out that they're just regular people," she said. With Mulvey, for instance, "we were talking about home repair and keeping water out of the basement."
Schueler hosts concerts about once a month, but most concert hosts only do it occasionally or for special events.
Fran Snyder is on a crusade to hook those homes up with musicians. The Kansas-based singer-songwriter runs ConcertsInYourHome.com, a national web listing for both musicians and hosts.
Snyder played his first house show on an off Saturday night while touring through Washington, D.C., in 2003. A friend of his invited 40 to 50 people over, and everyone tossed in $10 for the show.
"Looking out into the audience, I just saw how the crowd was charmed. A light bulb went off in my head - this is what I need to be doing," he said. "Playing clubs is really unsatisfying. You're lucky to have half the crowd actually be there to hear you."
As entertainment options grow, fragment and become increasingly based in the home - Nintendo Wii, expensive entertainment centers, Netflix subscriptions, etc. - clubs are having a harder time attracting large crowds. Music clubs are "overbuilt" now to get as many people in the door as possible, said Snyder, "so you wind up with so many distractions that can't really pull off a really meaningful show.
"House concerts put artists in a place where they're going to be listened to. I think of it as teaching people to learn to listen again," he added. "We've come to take live music for granted."
Private home shows allow touring musicians to fill the empty dates on their schedule. "Any night that you're on the road and not playing, you're losing money," he said.
For other musicians, the appeal of house shows is strictly about atmosphere and not economic. Madison singer-songwriter Vid Libert plays in bars with post-punk band The Takebacks, but prefers performing his solo acoustic songs at house venues, where audiences are more receptive and patient. He works full time as a custodian, and often plays in exchange for a potluck dinner and a couple of beers.
"That's okay, because I'm not really doing this for money. I clean toilets for that," he said.
Tom Schriner-Schmitt, a Wisconsin singer-songwriter who's played house shows around Madison, is turned off by the hustling required to book club shows and prefers the collaborative, community-focused vibe of privately organized concerts - "just people making music for music's sake."
He's made connections with audience members that he wouldn't have made playing in a club. "I had this guy freestyle rap to me for two or three hours. We went back and forth. I was pretty honored," he said.
The local house music scene is starting to kick off, he said, and he's heartened by the openness to it here compared to in his hometown. Coming to Madison was "a breath of relief - like, 'Oh man, the whole world isn't like Sturgeon Bay!'" Since then, the 22-year-old discovered house venues around the state, including a healthy scene in Milwaukee and Appleton.
One of the venues where Schriner-Schmitt has performed in Madison is the Sitting Dutchman, located on South Baldwin Street. It doesn't look like much on the outside - a run-down white house with broken furniture and folding chairs in the yard - but inside the Sitting Dutchman is a cozy home with a small open living room, a couple of couches, a hodgepodge of posters and friends' artwork, and no television. The kitchen has a collection of Spotted Cow beer bottles on top of the cupboards, a framed "Hamburger Helper" poster on the wall and a dry-erase board propped in the corner with a Kurt Vonnegut quote ("Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt").
Josh Swentzel, 23, lives here with a roommate and started booking acoustic acts in the living room last summer, mostly folk-punk and Americana music. He networks with bands on Myspace. The name is a riff on the "Flying Dutchman," the mystical ghost ship featured in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
Swentzel grew up in Minocqua, a small town north of Rhinelander. The only place that half-resembled a music venue in Minocqua was the local outdoor skate park, where kids put on punk shows for each other.
The Sitting Dutchman is a lot calmer. The upstairs is off-limits, but shows are "completely open to the public," said Swentzel, who works part time at the nearby Star Liquor. "We don't make any money off it, just ask people to give donations to the band. It's an honor system. Everybody's welcome, just be respectful."
His philosophy toward the cover charge is a pay-what-you-want model, similar to Radiohead's venture with its most recent album, "In Rainbows."
"I don't think you should be obliged to pay money to see art. Art is how you perceive it," he said. Regular venues dictate the value of a band, "and that's a judgment you should make."
Like Swentzel, Will Zarwell and his wife, Robin Chapman, host occasional shows in their near west side home just for the pleasure of doing it.
"There's no remuneration for doing it. We just hear wonderful music," said Zarwell. The couple, both in their mid-60s, can pack about 70 people in their house for the shows, mainly Celtic music. They publicize through word-of-mouth, invite their friends and set out tea and cookies. Strangers do come to the shows, "but nobody that's very strange."
The guests have to fit around 24 geranium plants in the living room. "It's very intimate. Sometimes the musicians get pushed into a corner. Some of the concertgoers sit within three feet of them," said Zarwell.
Chapman, a noted local poet, has a son who is a jazz bassist. She said she knows the difficulties musicians have making a living. She and Zarwell are happy to put up the musicians for the night after the show. The post-party and morning-after socializing with the band then become part of the host experience.
They're both hobby musicians and go to shows at the Wisconsin Union Theater and at bars, but giving house shows is "a gift to our neighbors and friends," said Zarwell.
Daniel Pingrey and Jimmie Linville, aka Daniel & the Lion, discovered the potential for their underground venue one day while doing some construction work in a storage unit in the parking garage. They noticed that the high-pitched whine of the power drill "carried on forever," said Pingrey. "When you turned it off, the sound continued."
Sure enough, after playing a few songs together, they discovered that the garage has phenomenal acoustics. Rooms with parallel walls give a "slap back" effect to the music, but the parking garage's slanted floors, odd angles and concrete columns break up that echo. There are so few cars that far down in the garage that it feels open, too, and the sound resonates beautifully without bouncing around.
"This room just makes it sound so, so good," said Linville.
They've invited people to come to the parking garage after club shows for an after-party. One time they had an audience of about 50, all sitting on blankets, jackets and instrument bags on the concrete floor.
On a recent Tuesday night, they hauled out Pingrey's marimba and plugged Linville's acoustic guitar into an amp for a short practice. They played a few originals and a cover of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me." The garage was cold enough that Linville had to tweak the guitar's tuning frequently.
The scene was somewhat apocalyptic, like watching a performance in a bomb shelter, but the sound was ethereal and moving. Even a whisper carries down there. It's easy to get lost in the music.