When the singer from The Pines told the appreciative crowd that this was the band’s favorite venue to play, it might have seemed a bit of the traditional buttering up of the audience. But, looking out at the twinkling strings of lights and an overflow crowd of 325 fans respectfully seated beneath the boughs of an ancient oak tree, the cool evening did feel magical.
The thing is, this was no club or amphitheater or fairground stage. It was somebody’s backyard.
On a double urban lot not far from the Mississippi River bluffs near St. Paul’s High Bridge, a family that wanted to do more than host the traditional neighborhood party has, for the past three summers, hosted an impressive roster of local artists in the modest yard behind a 160-year-old house.
Grand Oak Opry (they even have T-shirts) has featured Mina Moore, Communist Daughter, the Cactus Blossoms, Charlie Parr and the Roe Family Singers playing laid-back concerts that are pulling growing crowds while bringing residents of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods closer together.
“It kind of became a neighborhood project,” Timothy Hawkins said of all the neighbors who volunteer.
Added his husband Sean Kershaw: “All we did was clean up the yard.”
Well, they — and a lot of others — do a lot more than that. Neighbors volunteer as greeters. Others help sell band merchandise or run the sound system or take photographs. Some hand out water, others set up seating. Even Kershaw and Hawkins’ children — Grace and Aidan — pitch in to greet the audience or hand out Popsicles.
Neighbor Peg Brown has been greeting concertgoers since the start. She cannot recall a single neighborhood complaint.
“There is something about that tree and the backyard,” she said. “People are being really nice to each other and respecting this environment.”
The first show, in late summer 2014, drew about 50. The second, about 80. The five concerts last summer each drew more than 100. This summer, each of the six concerts drew well, Kershaw said, with the final concert — until next year — featuring The Pines pulling in well over 300, many of whom brought their own camp chairs, blankets, beer, wine and snacks.
It began as a quest to find someone to perform at their wedding. Then, conversations started leading toward a summer concert or two replacing the dreaded holiday party.
“Sean used to drive me crazy getting the place ready for those. He was like the Energizer Bunny, running around, cleaning everything,” Hawkins said. “He does that now, but it’s way more fun.”
Fueled by the imagination and efforts of musician friends who live in the area, such as former Son Volt band member Dave Boquist, the roster of potential performers kept growing.
And, as the concerts attracted bigger audiences, still more performers became interested. Thanks to all of the volunteers and sponsors, the musicians keep all of the money collected at each show — a suggested donation of $10, although no one is turned away if they cannot pay.
Because they don’t charge admission and the concerts are on private property, Hawkins and Kershaw don’t need a permit. They’re sensitive to noise, Kershaw said, so they make sure the concerts don’t get too loud and are done by 9 p.m. In fact, he said, all of his adjoining neighbors attend the concerts or volunteer.
Why musicians like it
Evan Clark plays tuba and is the leader of Jazzland Wonderband, which opened this summer’s series with a concert in June. And Clark lives just three blocks away. The money is nice, he said. The feeling of neighborhood is even better.
“It’s like the dream, to have a backyard concert series that is walking distance from your house and that has good music,” he said.
Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter also lives nearby. He and singer Molly Moore performed there last summer, and they enjoyed the laid-back feel of the shows — including kids playing on the lawn — which “was kind of cool.” He would happily do it again, Solomon said.
“For us, it almost feels like we get to go back and do a more intimate and personal thing. If it wasn’t such great people involved in it, I think it would have a different feeling,” he said. “It just feels like coming home.”
Mina Moore, a singer-songwriter from Minneapolis, said Kershaw and Hawkins did a good job convincing her that playing there wouldn’t be much of a financial risk by sharing numbers from past concerts.
“You could tell it wasn’t the first time they’d done this,” Moore said.
‘Really genuine, interesting’
On Saturday, while getting ready to play between brief bursts of rain, Benson Ramsey of The Pines said it was not a hard sell to convince his band to play Grand Oak Opry.
“Something about it seems really genuine and really interesting,” he said of a stage that is little more than a patio to the side of an old red garage. “We wanted to be a part of a community.”
That feeling of drawing an eclectic collection of people — of all incomes and ages — is what gives this such an energy, said neighbor Barbie Schwartz. A professional photographer, she volunteers to shoot the concerts. It’s easy to give back to a neighborhood that has made her feel so welcome in the year she’s been there.
“Everybody was so friendly and so welcoming,” she said. It’s a working-class neighborhood where some people live in homes built by their great-grandparents, but it is equally open and accessible to newcomers, Schwartz said.
Kathleen Corley, another neighbor who volunteers as a greeter at the shows, said the concerts serve to further tighten the fabric of W. 7th Street.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s a gathering. There are even fireflies,” she said. “You find a spot underneath the tree, grab a chair, smell the flowers in the air. It all just feels so good.”