Crazy Cool Crazy Todd and the Art of House Concerts

CrazyToddsby Jean Detjen, Artful Living

Appletonian “Crazy” Todd Van Hammond isn’t your typical music fan. When he loves a musician, it’s full tilt love. Some would say he gets a tad possessed when his favorite performers are the subject of conversation. But he’s far from crazy. And he’s someone to whom the local music community and beyond ought to pay tribute.

A professed “psycho fan” of alt-rock/post-grunge The Verve Pipe since the 90’s, Van Hammond was always looking for opportunities to engage with the artists behind the stage. He’d visit message boards and email the band site regularly to seek live show opportunities whenever he could and learn whatever he could about the music he couldn’t get enough of.

Lead singer and guitarist Brian Vander Ark (BVA)’s solo gigs weren’t large or well publicized. That didn’t stop Van Hammond from taking to the road to frequently see him perform in Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, and Michigan where BVA (who hails from Grand Rapids) frequently toured.

Van Hammond recalls a memorable Fall 2003 trip to see his idol do a live show in Muskegon, Michigan in a little tavern on the lake shore. “I drove ten hours to see him. The cover was $3. Solo singer-songwriter shows weren’t heavily attended back then but I loved the intimacy of the performances.”

He was shocked afterward when he got an email from BVA himself asking if his “psycho fan” had made it to see the show. “I told him I was there right up in front. He actually seemed kind of hurt that I didn’t say hi or talk to him after driving so far to see him. At that point I realized Brian had been fielding all the emails personally which was really cool. I made sure to talk to him when I saw him after that.”

Van Hammond continued to take in as many live BVA solo shows as he could. Familiarity grew between fan and performer. “Hey, Todd, what do you want to hear?” he was asked at a particularly memorable show where a play of his favorite track ‘1229 Sheffield’ was granted upon request. “I just HAD to hear it live. It was awesome. Brian also wrote out the set list for me at that show.”

A dialogue was in process that evolved further into more lengthy conversations and internet chats between shows. In the summer of 2007, BVA sent out an email to his fan base looking to book house shows for fans and their family and friends. This was the beginning of his Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms (LCLR) home tours. The artist wanted to tour and engage beyond smoky taverns and pubs with late night shows that weren’t always reaching his target audience. He was looking for a different, more meaningful way to reach out to his fans.

“I started Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms House Concerts out of necessity. The Verve Pipe wasn’t touring or recording and I needed a way to make a decent living as a musician. Coffee houses and sports bars weren’t paying the mortgage. I sent an email out to my fans to book me in their home, eliminating the middle man. I said I would consider any offer. I booked 52 shows that first 24 hours. I used to do 4 shows a day on the weekend, but have since slowed down, since the band is playing and recording more.”

Van Hammond jumped at the opportunity. “The idea resonated with me right away. How could I not be excited about the chance to see one of my favorite artists playing my favorite songs for my family and friends right in my own house?!” But there was a glitch. He had to get his wife Jen to agree.

“When I brought the idea to my wife she wasn’t into it at all. She envisioned a loud rock concert with a trashed house.”

He begged for weeks, trying to get her to change to mind. No luck. Possessed by something, he booked a show on the sly, taking his chances at retaliatory silent treatment or worse. “How could I pass on this opportunity?” he asked himself. “I just had to make it happen!”

Brian Vander Ark (BVA) performing at the  Van Hammond’s first house concert in 2007.

Brian Vander Ark (BVA) performing at the
Van Hammond’s first house concert in 2007.

Another challenge was figuring out how to finance the show. “I had a ticket for The Police – who I always wanted to see – at Wrigley Field which I sacrificed.” Cash from the sold ticket, a generous donation from a friend, and a “great deal” from BVA provided the seed of possibility.

“Like a drug dealer, he gave me the first show cheap, then got me coming back.”

Sixteen people were in attendance at that first show. “Jen was blown away by the experience…she saw the light and got that this was not as much a concert as it was story telling with an acoustic guitar and singer.”

The Van Hammond’s booked another show two months later, Todd making sure to capture audio for every home event and video for most. He mailed a copy to BVA who loved the vibe of what was captured so much that he asked his “Superfan” if he could sell the live recordings at other shows on his circuit. “Brian told me these were the best representation of what a house concert is supposed to be. It was exactly what he was trying to promote. The quality of the sound was great and you could hear people interacting, making comments, laughing and engaging on a very personal level.”

Van Hammond graciously agreed to his friend’s request and the $5 CDs sold like hotcakes.

The following Summer, BVA heard his friend was looking for work and saw a mutually beneficial opportunity. He asked Van Hammond to take over his LCLR bookings and social media/website duties. A new partnership was formed which eventually expanded to Van Hammond taking on the role of tour manager.

“I used to have someone help me book the shows but he got tired of it very quickly. It’s a lot of going back and forth with people via email. (Ask Todd.) Todd and Jen did everything right at their shows. Respectful crowd, nice setup, etc. I knew he was a fan of mine and the band, and he has great organization skills. Plus he had that Midwestern work ethic that I love. We hit it off right away.”

The two hit if off so well that they road-tripped together during a Wisco/Michigan tour with actor/musician/playwright Jeff Daniels, throughout which Van Hammond earned the nickname “Vitamin D.”

“Todd agrees to work for pennies, as long as I keep him swimming in whole milk.”

The bond between the two continued to grow alongside expanding house show bookings. Relationships were built with hosting communities as well. Van Hammond’s involvement in Appleton’s Mile of Music Festival Artist Recruitment Team (ART) helped solidify a Feature Stage spot for BVA during the inaugural fest.

To date, the Van Hammond’s have showcased BVA nine times at their home, a.k.a. Club Jen, Jen’s Attic, or Jen’s Living Room, with local opening artists introduced along the way. Their hospitality recipe typically includes seating for up to 40 guests who are traditionally graced with Todd’s Famous Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms. Friends bring beverages and snacks to share.

Respectful listening is the mantra, with break time scheduled for artist merch purchases, conversation and refreshment. Doors usually open at 7, with music starting at 8. The schedule is rather loose and organic, with one long set or two, and 1-2 social time breaks in between. Things normally shut down before the clock strikes 12.
Accomplished Fox Cities musicians featured at Crazy Todd’s House Concerts include Eric Krueger & Marty Paschke (of Leading the Blind), Andrew Johnson, Christopher Gold, Jordin Baas, Nicole Rae & Bill Grasley (of The Traveling Suitcase).

CrazyTodds_jennOther national artists showcased include Bob Walkenhorst (of The Rainmakers), Jimmy Newquist (of Caroline’s Spine), Purgatory Hill with Pat MacDonald (of TimBuk3) & MelanieJane, and Channing & Quinn.

Van Hammond’s next dream performer includes frontman and lyricist Justin Sullivan of the British band New Model Army which he hopes to charm into his living room one of these days. He’s just crazy enough to think it could happen. And it just might if Sullivan knows a good thing when he sees it.

Musicians who have fans like Van Hammond ought to consider themselves very lucky indeed. So are those who have the privilege to call him friend.

Says Van Hammond, “If you’re a fan of an artist and love witnessing live music, you will never have a show as special as one played in your own living room.”

Thank you, Crazy Todd, for showing us how it’s done.

Paul Hillmer, guest: I’ve been a huge fan of The Rainmakers and singer Bob Walkenhorst since the 1980’s. Based out of KC, I always had to drive down there to see him and came to find the out there were others in the area who were also big fans, including a brother-in-law of my wife’s college friend. Since then I have become close friends with Todd who has hosted Bob three times. It has been a incredible experience and has spun out new friendships for myself and my wife and a new music circle. I never thought I’d see the day that Bob would play Appleton along be with playing in front of me in a house of a friend. Mind blowing!

Andy Wittig, guest: Crazy Todd brings people together. 4-5 years ago, meeting Todd and Jen through mutual friends over drinks and stuffed mushrooms… a chance comment from me of “You dig Caroline’s Spine too?? That’s one of my favorite bands!” with a response of “Jimmy Newquist plays at my house!” turned me into the happy person all of my music scene friends know today. Todd’s house concerts, namely first seeing Jimmy play there, was the start of building my music family. I always know that it’ll be fun for me to head out for live music (even on my own if my wife can’t get out). Thanks to Todd and Jen and their house shows for lighting that fire and passion for live local music in me.

Kent Waush, guest: A few years back I spent a weekend and compiled a list of my top 50 songs of all time…my favorites of all time I guess. Thanks to Crazy Todd and his house shows I have seen and met the man that penned #2 on the list. CT and his house provided me a privilege that I never would’ve imagined… that being seeing such an intimate show with one of my heroes, Jimmy Newquist, and then actually getting the chance to meet and talk with him too… never in my life did I envision that ever happening to me.

Felicia Lyons Rashid, guest: I have had the privilege to attend two of Todd’s house concerts. It was like having an out-of-body experience! Not only do you get to visit and enjoy drinks and snacks with other like-minded lovers of music, you have the privilege of sitting in a comfortable living room with a quaint group of friends that all turn off their cell phones and turn on their ears! It’s like having a front row seat at the most popular concert in town! We all tune in and hear the voices and music of angels! I get so caught up in the moment that I feel like I am the only one the musician or band is playing to! Every moment is a captured moment in my memory! I always make sure to get a few photos as well! It’s an opportunity everyone who loves music would want to be a part of! You also have the BEST host and hostess in the whole Fox Valley!

Andrew Johnson, performer: The support and enthusiasm Crazy Todd has brought to this scene is impossible to measure. How he has the energy to keep it up is beyond me. Love that dude!

Eric W. Krueger, performer: Crazy Todd and his love (obsession?) of all things music is truly an inspiration to all, fans and musicians alike. The intimacy of his house shows is an absolutely moving experience, and the platform he provides (with the support of his beautiful family) is a wonderful opportunity to see regional and national artists in a unique environment, with a small and dedicated group of friendly faces. Always an overly accommodating host, he rarely stops to take it all in for himself; checking his numerous recording devices, re-filling beverages, and singing along to every word. Bless his pizza buffet-dominating heart.

Steve Smits, guest: Todd has got house concerts down to a science. He knows exactly what artists would attract the most demand, books them, sends attendee invites out…and even prints out tickets. His living room has perfect acoustics for music listening. And let’s not forget about his wife Jennifer who fully supports this in what is said to be HER living room. She deserves a lot of thanks and adulation as well. A concert at Crazy Todd’s is one for the ages which lives on in the hearts and minds of all who are lucky enough to be in attendance.

Jordin Baas, performer: Todd is awesome. He helps out the musicians by not only getting them more exposure to a new audience, but he records audio and visual of the performance, which is awesome because we can use it.

Christopher Gold, performer: Todd is a good friend and a true lover of music. His enthusiasm is contagious, his hospitality is legendary and appreciated, and his friendship is a joy. He also knows where all the good gyro spots are and he drives like a madman.

Marty Paschke, performer: It is an honor to perform at Crazy Todd’s house concerts, and a privilege to witness such great talent in the intimate setting known as Jen’s living room. Thank you Todd and Jen for the great hospitality.

Brian Vander Ark – ‘The Freshmen’ – Lawn Chairs & Living Rooms 2012 house concert. (All video and editing by Marc Golde. Audio via Crazy Todd.)

Full playlist of Crazy Todd’s House Concerts:

More info on LCLR:

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