Full House

L.A.’s Cool-Kids Backyard Concert Series—Kensington Presents

A pop-up concert series in Los Angeles is bringing together up-and-coming musicians with an eclectic audience for a pot-luck backyard concert. What more could a West Coast hipster want?

Courtesy Cris-Ian Garcia

On a cool California night in October 2013, a large harp stands upright on the porch of a house in Los Angeles’s Angeleno Heights neighborhood. Just in front of it, a long table is packed with creative potluck dishes, while two coolers are filled with ice and 12 bottles of Moët Chandon that beg to be popped. Mini Edison bulbs hang from the roof across the lawn, lighting up the front yard, which is filled with anywhere from 80 to 100 guests—neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and the sister visiting from out of town (yours truly).

This is no frat party kegger a la Animal House, and co-host Mathieu Young—a fit, blond and pinch-me attractive photographer—is certainly no John Belushi. Rather, this is Kensington Presents, a monthly music and dinner series where guests come to kibbitz and booze with fellow artsy types, while attentively listening to live music by up-and-coming musicians such as Cristina Black, player of the aforementioned harp. What’s more, it’s all free of charge.

These days, pop-up concerts at unusual venues like Kensington are in good company. The international SoFar Sounds invites members into living rooms and private retail stores, while the Brooklyn-based One Thousand Birds has people grooving at a warehouse in Bushwick, and 7 Train Sessions holds their gigs on…the 7 train, among other secret spots.

While Young didn’t know about these other ventures when he and his roommate Drew Flaherty, a musician, first started doing their thing in the spring of 2013, he’s got a genuine “the more the merrier” attitude when it comes to unique music experiences.

“We’re in such a space right now where people automatically think, ‘How am I going to make money on this idea?’ or ‘If I’m not going to get more Instagram followers than…’ For me, if doing a Thing doesn’t get me any money or social media buzz, it’s still building the kind of community I want to be a part of. If anything, it’s entrepreneurialism around social capital; around wanting to have a little bit of a cultural voice; in crafting the kind of community that I want to see,” Young says in between bites of an egg scramble at Maison Kayser in New York. “It’s a ‘Be the change you want to see…’ type of thing. Oh no, I’m quoting Ghandi!” he adds with a laugh.

What he and his private gig-throwing cohorts seem to have captured is the need for connectivity; the need for intimacy and the importance of a shared experience that’s not necessarily found in a screen, no matter how great the retna display.

“Sometimes I feel super isolated in this social media heavy world,” Young, 33, says. “We have so many outlets for ‘connection’ online we don’t bother actually showing up and connecting in person. These have been a really nice way to get people together.”

The duo has booked a range of artists from a string quartet and a Flamenco guitar trio, to a bluegrass band and a folksy singer, all of whom play for pure enjoyment and to expand their fan base. “We’re into eclectic programming,” says Young, who books two acts per evening, once a month (give or take a week). “We make them different so if you come for one, you’re going to be exposed to something else you weren’t expecting.

“What we don’t want is the indie rock band that’s also playing down the street at [local live music venue] the Echo Plex. I love that music, but I’ll go see it down at the Echo Plex.”

The crowd itself is part-Brooklyn hipster, with a side of Hollywood heavyweight thrown in for good measure. You might see an actor from Masters of Sex mingling with the founder of Seed & Spark, a new crowdfunding platform for filmmakers, or the CEO of the global shared workplace Hub LA rubbing shoulders with a show-running power couple. They all come to be exposed to alternative types of music, but end up experiencing it in a new way, too.

For years now, serious concertgoers have had to contend with that loud douche-y guy in the back trying to pick up the girl while everyone else is trying to pick up the performer’s acoustic guitar riffs. And these days you’re more likely to see the artist through someone else’s handheld device than you are your own two eyes. Kensington requires more than that.

“I saw Karen O play at Le Poisson Rouge [in Greenwich Village] recently and she asked everybody to turn off their phones,” Young says. “I think there’s a way for performers to foster a quiet, focused audience, but it helps when the venue is part of that. That’s the premise of Kensington: no one talks during the show. Everyone’s like, ‘Cool, the music is on, we just don’t talk.’ You’d almost feel like a pariah if you do.”

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Young also tries to foster consideration and courtesy when it comes to his neighbors by not only inviting them, but also controlling crowd numbers with a “must join the mailing list for an invite” ethos, and making sure the music stops by 10 p.m.

With the exception of one “nimby” local resident who “was all ‘not-in-my-backyard,’” Kensington Presents hasn’t resulted in any cop-calling or even security issues, despite the fact that guests are free to use the bathroom and roam through the kitchen to fill up their plates.

Initially, it was potluck-only and guests would pick up something from Trader Joe’s or bake a dozen or so brownies. But it’s hard to throw a potluck for 100 people, Young says: “When it’s that big, it’s not that obvious when people don’t bring stuff.” Therefore, he started hiring vendors like a “papusa lady” and a pizza guy to come and cook up made-to-order snacks.

They’re also now asking for a suggested donation of between $10-15 to cover costs—despite the fact that Young still ends up spending about $1,000 of his own money on each event. He’s only broken even once.

In an effort to change it up and give their clean-up crew and wallets a rest, Young and Flaherty recently collaborated with the California State Parks Department to throw a pop-up performance in Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. With the city lights below and the sun setting around them, the evening’s audience erupted into a bluegrass square-dance and was later serenaded by Brazilian drumming, then led in a guided meditation.

“Kensington was almost an accident,” Young says. “The music was secondary to just getting people together. I think people like Kensington because you watch something for 20 minutes and then you share with each other. It’s a hear-be-heard sort of a thing that people really respond to. But I’m looking into some other more immersive opportunities, too.”

For now, you’ll still find him with a bottle of bubbly in his hands, filling glasses for the crowd milling about on his front lawn.

“I find gratitude in seeing other people connect,” he says, “and then knowing that I’ll see them all at their Thing next week.”

Sign up to join the Kensington Presents mailing list for an invite to the next event.