Friday, March 13, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The sound of Richard Stewart working on cars used to fill the metal garage.
These days it’s the sound of guitar strumming. Some days there are drums or keyboards, but mostly guitars.
Stewart and his wife, Betty, call the place “Garage-Ma-Hall.”
The building, on West Tropical Parkway in the northwest Las Vegas, might be the ultimate venue for a garage band — an 1,800-square-foot casual showroom with an 18-by-20-foot stage, sound and lighting equipment, an array of comfortable sofas and easy chairs, and seats where dozens of fans gather from time to time to listen to singers and musicians on “house concert” tours.
House concerts are low-key events in which music-loving homeowners open their doors to performers who travel from town to town, playing for donations. Most of the musicians fall into the folk, folk-rock or soft-rock categories, although some play jazz or blues.
The Stewarts were introduced to house concerts about five years ago and were so taken by the idea they eventually converted their garage to accommodate musicians and fans.
“There’s a hoist in the back over there, but you can’t see it because of the stage,” says Stewart, 62, a county employee and amateur guitar player who likes nothing better than to get up on the stage and jam with friends.
Their house concerts are free even though Stewart says the concerts probably cost him $300 or more for food and nonalcoholic beverages and the cost of heat and air conditioning.
“Any donations we get from the guests go to the artist. Any merchandise that is sold, CDs or whatever, goes to the artists. We provide snacks and power,” Stewart says.
He calls Garage-Ma-Hall a hobby that got out of hand.
“I love music so much that over time I have added to it,” Stewart says. “I started with really hokey lights, and then I built a light rack and then pretty soon we had to have a mixer, just a small one that had a cable running across the floor, and eventually we put in a 24-channel mixer. We can record in here.”
It all started when Stewart and pal Dale Matz formed a band called Just Killing Time, which played at Cinco de Mayo and Halloween parties. The garage was their practice room.
They held those parties in the garage as well. After a while they decided a stage would be a nice addition — and then the sound system and lighting. He left the drums, keyboards and other instruments on the stage so friends could jam after concerts. Or before. Or whenever they felt the urge to make music.
After the band broke up Stewart offered the garage for house concerts. They host a half-dozen or so a year — when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold because it costs a lot to heat and cool the room.
For the first couple of years the house concerts featured local musicians. Then the Stewarts joined the Far-West Folk Alliance and made contact with musicians who often perform in house concerts.
Actor Ronny Cox, who instigated the dueling banjo sequence in “Deliverance” and played guitar as Woody Guthrie’s buddy in “Bound for Glory,” headlined Garage-Ma-Hall. Cox is an accomplished musician with a half-dozen albums.
“He likes to do story-type songs. He tells a story and then does the song,” Stewart says.
Other past performers include Mark Rodney, Traffic Jam, Dave Potts, Hot Club of Las Vegas and Michael Soli, who runs the acoustic guitar nights at House of Blues at Mandalay Bay and introduced the Stewarts to house concerts.
Posters of the artists adorn one wall of the garage. CD covers adorn a section of another wall.
The next poster headed for the wall is that of the Canadian folk group The Buccaneers, who will perform at 8 p.m. March 28.
About 40 fans attended a recent concert featuring guitarist and singer John Batdorf, making their donations and dropping off covered dishes and other eats.
Batdorf developed an underground following in 1970 when he formed a duo with local resident Mark Rodney and performed at the Kitchen coffee house on the UNLV campus and other Vegas venues. They cut three albums in Los Angeles before going their separate ways.
Batdorf remembers his brief time here.
“I had been working as a waiter in L.A. and I wanted to dedicate my whole time to music but I didn’t have enough money,” he says.
Because his girlfriend’s parents lived in Las Vegas, Batdorf got a job at the Kitchen.
“I was a soda jerk and I cleaned up and did four or five shows a night,” he recalls.
It was there he and Rodney — whose father, Red, was a famous bebop trumpet player — hooked up and began a five-year professional relationship.
After touring for most of the ’70s, Batdorf spent the ’80s working as a songwriter for groups such as America, England Dan, and Kim Carnes, and as a studio singer heard on hundreds of jingles, movies and TV shows.
In the ’90s he started producing records and commercials and scoring shows, including “Promised Land” and “Touched by an Angel.”
The Rolling Stones got him back on the road when he and James Lee Stanley released the album “All Wood and Stones,” an acoustic remake of 11 of the Stones’ greatest hits, among them “Satisfaction,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Last Time.”
“I was never going to go on the road, I was doing my thing, but then the album got so much airplay on XM radio. It went crazy,” he says.
Batdorf has been touring ever since, playing gigs from clubs to house concerts.
His performance at Garage-Ma-Hall was a stopover as he made his way to a house concert in Utah.
“We can hopscotch across the United States with the house concerts,” he says. “Some house concerts in L.A. have been going for over 10 years — they’re big ones, sometimes doing 12 or 14 shows a year.”
But none of them has a Garage-Ma-Hall, which seems like the Taj Mahal to troubadours more accustomed to performing in living rooms.
The Stewarts have gone to a lot of expense in transforming their garage. But they don’t regret a penny.
“We don’t go out and play the slots,” Stewart says. “If you look at it in terms of entertainment dollars per year, it’s not a bad deal. That’s how we rationalize it. We could be going out to dinner tonight and spending 100 bucks. You can easily spend as much in a month just going out as we do on the concerts.”