Front Porch

Jimmy Duke, Impresario: Dark Thirty Celebrates 20 Years

Jimmy Duke

Jimmy Duke

I met Jimmy Duke one Halloween probably 33 years ago. He was dressed as Count Dracula. For years I thought of him as the Count. In the intervening years I have come to think of him as someone you can always count on.

On May 3rd, 1998, the Joel Rafael Band performed in Duke’s living room in Lakeside, to an audience made up mostly of Jimmy’s friends and family. That performance, in that hard-to-find house, was the inaugural concert of what would become, by many accounts, the best house concert series in the country.

Jimmy, an avid supporter of all sorts of live music and a huge fan of Rafael, wanted to take this passion of his to a new level. He wanted a place where the musicians he loved so much would have a better chance at actually getting heard rather than competing with rude and rowdy patrons’ loud conversations, televisions, and tinkling glasses.

Duke soon set about turning his custom built (by him and an uncle) Eucalyptus Hills home into a theater-like setting. The two-story house was designed with nearly all of the floor space opening into a spacious knotty pine-paneled great room with 20-foot ceilings. This would be the performance space and main seating area. The wrap-around upstairs loft would serve as balcony and overflow seating. An outdoor deck along one long windowed wall of the living room would add more overflow seating. It would also serve as a holding area for early bird guests who would arrive before the doors were opened following the sound check. The downstairs master bedroom would serve as the performers’ ready room, replete with a full bathroom, air conditioning, and stay-over privileges for out-of-town performers. He later added a tarpaulin cover to the deck to both shade his guests and protect them from rain. He bought lots of cushioned folding chairs. He also purchased a few propane heaters and lots of blankets for the audience members who prefer sitting on the deck.

He built a stage; purchased and installed a professional sound system, cables, stands, and high end microphones; bought and hung up theater lighting, including two follow spots on the balcony. He bought a Taylor K14 as house guitar for the traveling artists who needed two, but could only afford to bring one.

Jimmy organized a volunteer crew, which included his wife Linda as well as friends and family, who would perform duties ranging from serving the pot luck buffet from the spacious kitchen, to taking tickets, designing and printing programs, creating and running the website, taking pictures, and running lights. He hired me to make audio recordings of each show, and veteran audio engineer Dave Henk to run sound.

For the first couple of seasons the ticket price was $10 to $15, depending on the artist’s stature. Eventually he stepped that up to $15 to $20. However, the expenses Jimmy incurs with every show: advertising, food and drink, transportation, programs, and piano/keyboard rentals come right out of his pocket unless the ticket proceeds are over and above the performer’s guarantee, which they rarely are. Despite the monetary losses Duke is determined that the show must go on.

Besides Rafael, the list of notable Dark Thirty performers is vast, but includes John Stewart, Chris Smither, Eliza Gilkyson, Michael Peter Smith, Leo Kottke, Pat Donohue, Matt Nakoa, Ronnie Cox, Hot Club of Cowtown, and Shana Morrison (Van’s daughter). Much less notably, but I’ve even had the privilege of doing shows at this venerable venue, as have many other local performers.

With 20 seasons of exceptional house concerts from folk to jazz to classical under his belt, Jimmy doesn’t show signs of stopping. He sometimes kids about not getting any younger (he recently turned 81), but when he gets up on stage at the beginning of each concert to introduce the artist, you can see a gleam in his eye that says, “I love this too much to quit.” I’m glad to see that gleam, because I know what value Jimmy’s efforts hold for our community and the world at large. They may seem like a drop in the bucket at first, but upon reflection, the ripples that Dark Thirty House Concerts sends out into the universe have touched the lives of too many to mention, touched them in such a way that they’ll never forget that hard to find house in the Eucalyptus Hills of Lakeside, where they sat on the deck at sunset, shared a glass of wine and some tasty food with other like minded music lovers, then settled in to hear some of the best live music anywhere, in that cozy knotty pine living room.

Jimmy’s next show will be Terry & Jerry Holder on 2/12/2017

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