Finding authenticity in a Walter Martin concert in a stranger’s living room

It seemed almost too good to be true: a live concert in someone’s living room with Walter Martin, a member of one of my favorite bands, The Walkmen.

The address would remain a mystery until a ticket was purchased, but at $20, it seemed like a worthy gamble. Since The Walkmen went on hiatus a few years ago, Martin has released two solo albums, including “Arts & Leisure,” which came out in January this year.

While The Walkmen straddle the line between pure rock ’n’ roll and indie rock, Martin’s solo efforts have been decidedly low-key — perhaps the perfect guy-with-a-guitar sound for the intimate confines of a living room.

I got the ticket, and found out the show would be in a loft building in Emeryville off 40th Street near the Oakland border. From the outside on Google Streetview, it looked more like a warehouse (perhaps for the remains of a discarded idea at nearby Pixar Animation Studios)?

The tickets said to bring a pillow to sit on, and even a few adult beverages. Martin would play for 80 or 90 minutes, and patrons could stick around to chat with each other — and the musician — before and after the show.

The studio loft was large and airy, with enormous windows facing west and about 18 people mingling and drinking wine. Martin was in the corner talking to a few guests.

Melinda, the host, warmly greeted us.

She told us she got the “job” after a friend of hers who knew she’s a big Walkmen fan found a post on Martin’s Facebook page in which he was looking for hosts for a West Coast Living Room tour.

So she contacted tour sponsor Undertow, a collective which has been setting up these types of shows since 1996, and her offer was accepted. She could invite five friends, but would otherwise only be compensated with the experience itself. (Artists performing Living Room Shows earn all proceeds from ticket sales.) A newcomer to the Bay Area, she said it was more than enough.

Before the show, she offered audience members finger foods and Aperol spritzers.

About 10 minutes later — after my companion knocked over Melinda’s dog’s water dish — Martin grabbed his guitar, sat down and was ready to start.

The loft was more than big enough to accommodate the 24 people who showed up.

Martin told us to gather in close to him, as this was supposed to be an intimate experience.

As he began to play the first song off “Arts & Leisure,” a sweet little ditty about all the jobs he had before becoming a “touring musician,” as he put it, everything came into focus. It was clear he wanted to be there, playing this way, freed of the chains of a specific sound and stage and allowed to do his own thing on his own terms.

We in the audience were just lucky to be there.

With the sun setting for most of the show, it cast a sparkling light on Martin as he sat on Melinda’s furniture, strumming his guitar and singing his soft tunes. Buses and traffic passed by outside.

In a world in which we increasingly crave authenticity, this was textbook.

Music is of course so personal — some might say equally for the artist and the listener.

But sometimes all you hear is the music without considering the person who made it. Or maybe you create your own profile of the artist, derived from how their music makes you feel.

It’s no fault of anyone, yet it does create a wall. And there is something almost impersonal about the delivery of music, especially in the digital age, through speakers. There’s just nothing like hearing it live, seeing it live, from the belly of the artist.

But being in a sea of fans staring up at a stage is one thing; sitting on a stranger’s table, in a small room with no sound equipment, just a lot of smiles and a guitar player, is something else.

In a way, it’s like hearing music again for the first time.


Bay Area Living Room Shows
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Aug. 6-7 (sold out)
Eef Barzelay: Aug. 8 (sold out)
Mike Doughty: Aug 31-Sept. 1 (sold out)