Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: The Shack in the Back offers music lovers a different kind of concert.
In South Florida, concert venues generally fall into one of three categories, -- big box theaters like Hard Rock Live, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, or the Fillmore; hip nightspots like Revolution, the Stage, and Culture Room; or those that cater to niche audiences, like Tobacco Road and the Bamboo Room.
However, there's another option, one that's relatively rarer in these parts, and that's the house concert. These are exactly that. Places like the Shack in the Back. It provides the stage for a small intimate performance for a small audience in a home, with those in attendance paying a moderate donation and bringing a food contribution that can go toward a potluck meal. It's an opportunity to get up close and personal with a performer in a way that's not possible even in the most intimate club setting, and it allows an artist with a relatively modest fan following to play in an area where he or she might not otherwise draw a crowd.
Husband and wife team Ellen Bukstel and Brian Wolfsohn have helped pioneer the concept in our environs. The Shack in the Back, their homespun venue, is a 170-seat performance space situated on the two and a half acres in South Broward adjacent to their ranch. The pair produce concerts at the venue from November to April, and attract a surprisingly impressive array of performers, including renowned folk artists Jonathan Edwards, Dion, Tom Rush, Susan Werner, Christine Lavin, and Vance Gilbert.
Ellen, who's produced various concert series on and off since the mid '90s, originally began presenting shows at Temple Beth Or in South Miami as part of her efforts to raise funds for AIDS research after her first husband, Doug Segal, died from complications related to the disease. They helped the synagogue develop its own venue, Sacred Grounds Coffeehouse, garnering Miami New Times' designation as "Best New Venue" in the process.
The Bukstel House Concerts at the Shack in the Back have been accorded their share of kudos as well, but for the couple, the most gratifying reactions come from those that attend the shows.
"All the concerts are special and unique," Ellen insists. "The concerts are up close and personal, and the performers are very connected to the audience because of the casual environment of a home setting. It's a very large house concert series compared to most around the country, yet small enough for everyone to feel connected to the performer and the music. It's a totally joyful pursuit, and worth all the time and effort just to see how much people enjoy themselves."
Then again, Ellen knows something about entertaining an audience, given that she's been performing since childhood. With an enviable pedigree as a singer/songwriter -- one that includes several dozen prestigious awards, accorded her by the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, the New Zealand Peace Song Competition, and others. She's also attracted notice from several high profile performers like Michael Bolton, Peter Yarrow, and Tom Paxton.
Her debut album, Daddy's Little Girl, helped establish her penchant for speaking out on issues from both a political and personal point of view. In addition, her song "By My Silence," co-written with her friend Nick Annis and borne from the perspective of someone who was a silent witness to the Holocaust, received top honors in the 2008 Public Domain Foundation Music to Life competition. The prize was decided on by a prestigious group of judges, a panel made up of top folk performers that included Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton and others of their ilk.
Ellen's newest single, "Who's the Pusher Now," written with Nick Annis and her son Brett Segal, also makes a significant statement. The song offers a harsh indictment of the time and effort the government spends in fighting its futile drug wars and advocates for the long overdue legalization of marijuana. ("Let the government take a bow... Let the government take a bow/Who's the pusher now!")
These days, Ellen seems pleased that she's able to further her music career in tandem with what she does with the Shack in the Back. "It's truly a happening every time," she says. "The atmosphere and community are very warm and friendly. People are often so amazed to have discovered this tiny oasis of musical pleasure."