Promoting concerts in the Salt Lake City music scene was getting stressful for Chase Gillins.
“The whole goal, forever, was to make them as big as possible,” Gillins said. “That kind of gets old. … You don’t really enjoy yourself, and you don’t get to talk to the people that come in.”
Gillins and Steph Clotele, who comprise the Utah folk duo Little Lonesome, were aiming to think small, to create the “antithesis” of the bigger-is-better model.
What they and Clotele’s business partner Victoriya Baskin — they’re innkeepers at the Ellerbeck Bed & Breakfast in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood — created is the Carriage House Secret Sessions, a series of intimate concerts in a venue with a maximum capacity of 30 people.
The idea for the sessions first started percolating in 2022, when they held a benefit concert for Ukraine, just after the Russian invasion had started. Baskin is from Ukraine. They chose the carriage house at the Ellerbeck, at 140 N. B Street in The Avenues, as their location.
(The inn is owned by Kara and Tyler Alden, whose ancestry goes back to the Utah pioneers. The mansion, built in 1892, first belonged to Henrietta Dyer, the third wife of Thomas W. Ellerbeck, one of Brigham Young’s accountants. According to the inn’s website, Dyer sued Ellerbeck for divorce, claiming “neglect,” and won. Clotele said it was the first time a polygamous wife filed for divorce in the Utah territory.)
The Ukraine benefit, Clotele said, “was beautiful and everything sounded so good in here. We were, like, ‘We have to keep doing this.’”
At the benefit, Gillins said, Baskin gave a beautiful speech, “speaking on how in Ukraine, it’s a very, very common thing to have just small celebrations that are music and food.”
That stuck with them. They simmered on it, and came up with the sessions — recorded live music sets, featuring artists in short episodes, along with a dinner, cooked by Baskin, to get to know them. The sessions are intimate by design, and by the fact that the space is so small.
“We share how their music has come along, what the meal was about,” Baskin said. “Just music and food and culture and everything kind of together. … That’s what life should be.”
‘It’s this big’
Most of the shows in the Carriage House Sessions require tickets bought in advance. On the first Monday of the month, they hold an open mic night, and let people in until the place is full.
On July 3, about two dozen people packed into the space, which has perfect acoustics — with wood-paneled walls and ceiling, with a few speakers augmenting the sonic experience.
The room felt like a cabin. Inside there were eight chairs, two picnic tables, and a Euro-pioneer collection of decor. A crate advertising Hercules Powder — a long-ago armaments manufacturer — held bouquets of fake flowers.
Windows of various sizes allowed the early evening summer sunlight to stream into the room, illuminating the dust particles here and there.
In a bar area, Pete Souvall of Bedlam Bakery was stationed with his mouth-watering cookies. A marquee sign advertised them as “Open Mic Cookies.”
The space got crowded at times, with the musicians — eight acts have signed up this July night — hauling their instrument cases into the room.
“It’s this big,” Gillins said, looking around the room. “If you’re here, you’re here. And if you’re not — next time, maybe.”
A place to perform
Little Lonesome kicked off the open mic night, performing a set of Americana music. Gillins’ gravelly voice and rhythmic command of the reverberating kick drums, along with Clotele’s delicate ukulele playing and the harmonic sound of her voice, left everyone in hushed reverence.
“The great thing about it being small, [and] intimate, is it gives us this ability to record stuff really well,” Clotele said.
Their friend, Jeff Flowers, was recording the evening, and each of the open mic acts was to receive a free recording of their set. The organizers said they are making it their mission to help out lesser-known artists who may not be able to afford studio recording time.
The audience can watch everything — the transitions between acts, the bands setting up — from what’s essentially a front-row seat, just as they can hear every note, see every guitar strum and look of concentration on a musician’s face.
Being an open mic show, artists got to experiment with new material or perfect old songs.
Max Steele, a first-timer to this venue, performed some of his solo stuff that he’s been working on. The set, reminiscent of Ed Sheeran, was jazzy, deep and heartfelt, and put his thoughtful guitar skills on display.
Skylar Johnson, who has performed at most of the open mic sessions, performed some of his songs, which were reminiscent of folk, full of equal measures of heart and harmonica swells. It sounded a bit like Mumford & Sons, if they had a little more country twang.
Johnson, as he introduced himself, thanked Gillins and Clotele for creating a space where the Carriage House Sessions can happen — a community, which is what music is all about.
“Most open mics are for a bar or a coffee shop,” Gillins said, “[to] get people in the door on a slow night. That’s their purpose, and if something else comes out of it in the arts department, then great, but that’s not the main focus.”
The Carriage House Sessions, he said, are here for the performing aspect. And they’re not limited to musicians: The organizers want comedians, poets, performance artists, storytellers and more.
The organizers are looking to the future. They are looking for food and drink sponsors, to produce revenue that can help pay local musicians and produce more video sessions. The space has a loft upstairs, where the acoustics are even better, but for now it’s off limits.
They are mindful, though, that their neighbor is literally right next door.
“If it gets too popular, we might have to put a cap on it,” Gillins said of the open mic sign-up. “But, as of right now, we’ve been happy to just keep going until everyone’s gone through.”
Everyone is welcome, old friends or new. A night at the sessions or open mic delivers something rare in music today: A night that’s small, intimate and special.
“It’s an experience,” Clotele said. “It’s really just, like, a good evening.”