Forest and Sally Irons arrived at a white two-story home on South Beech St. carrying fried chicken, a cooler stocked with white wine, an umbrella and three lawn chairs - one for Sally, one for Forest and one for Forest’s feet.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the Irons were the first to arrive. The backyard empty, they decided to decamp before a small porch at the rear of the home, where a bank of microphones and amplifiers had been assembled.
The Mitguards, a folk duo from Colorado Springs, stood on the porch tuning their instruments, the guitar picking and according wailing producing a cacophony. They paused briefly, as Forest approached to shake hands. The Mitguards are now annual summer visitors to Casper and have befriended their fans here.
The trio commiserated for a moment before Forest returned to his chair and the Mitguards to their tuning.
“They’re not many places you can go for high quality music in an intimate venue,” Forest said, as he settled in for the evening. “To be sitting 10-15 feet away from a nice musical act is hard to come by.”
“It’s surprising the people who come,” Sally said. “You would never think they’d be interested in music.”
The Casper summer house concert series formally began five years ago. The Irons attended the first concert at a neighbors, and have been regulars ever since.
The series has grown quickly in its short lifetime. The first summer featured one concert. This summer features nine. This year’s acts hail from as far away as Nashville and Colorado Springs. The crowd of lawn chair toting, food bearing-concert goers sometimes nears 100.
The atmosphere is nonetheless more potluck than music festival. On this night, the crowd arrived as the sun fell over Casper. Friends stopped to talk, plates and chairs in hand, before finding a spot to set up on the lawn. Soon the long foldout table at the edge of the lawn was filled with fruits, casseroles and chicken.
Eventually most of the grass was covered by people, their lawn chairs and their blankets. They ate, with paper plates upon their laps, and talked quietly amongst themselves. Some sipped wine, others a beer.
The duo of Amy Gieske and Corey McDaniel opened. Gieske played bass. McDaniel played acoustic guitar. They took turns singing, their music very much in the vein of the sing-songwriters from the 1960s: Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joni Mitchell.
McDaniel asked the crowd to snap along with a song, and they complied. He sang a protest song, and the crowd clapped politely, if not a little cautiously.
Gieske is one of the organizers of the series. She first suggested the idea to her friend, Sue Berchenbriter, five years ago. Berchenbriter liked it and hosted songwriter Jeff Finlin in the first concert at her home. Finlin has returned every year since.
“It’s a group of people all of whom are interested in music and supporting something different than going to a bar on Friday night,” Gieske said.
There is no cover charge for the concerts. A donation of $10 is suggested. Some people choose to pay more, others pay less. Donations are collected in a large water jug with a yellow post-it note displaying a smiley face and the message “band money.”
The concerts are invite only, but that is more a function of limited space than it is exclusivity. Friends invite friends, meaning a steady flow of newcomers accompany regulars at the weekend showings. Organizers have an email list of 300 people, Berchenbriter said.
“To me it’s about neighborhoods and forming community,” Berchenbriter said. She spends around 40 hours over a four-month period organizing the concerts. But the effort expended doesn’t feel like much, especially when the music is playing.
“There’s no other sound like it. It’s in a backyard, the lights are on. The moon comes out,” she said.
“It’s never better then when it’s at your own house.”
By the time the Mitguards arrived on stage, the sun had nearly set. Sally Irons had taken down her umbrella long ago. The Mitguards began to play. Their instruments were now in tune and the crowd listened in silence as the sound of harmonica, accordion and guitar drifted out into the otherwise quiet Casper night.