Built to Chill

Chilton House hosts one-of-a-kind concerts with a living room feel in Forest Hill.

Cruising down Forest Hill Avenue, you might not realize the early 20th century home you passed doubles as a concert space where renowned rockers give refreshingly intimate performances — and where plenty of pinball is played in the process.

“Even people in the neighborhood are still just finding out that we’re here,” says Angi Baber. Since 2017, she and significant other Rob Pannell have been hosting shows at Chilton House, the home they bought and converted back to a single-family dwelling after it served as a doctor’s office for 30 years.

Appearing on Sunday, April 2 is Jason Narducy, a five-time Chilton alum whose resume includes stints with Superchunk and Bob Mould, in addition to solo work as Split Single. His first stop there was among the earliest events for this venue that never set out to be a venue, but where you’ll find an atmosphere of warm community and creative hospitality. “We want this to feel like their home in Richmond,” Baber says.

For the couple at the center of the “Chillin’ at Chilton” series, making artists feel at home starts with rearranging theirs. This light fixture moves upstairs, that table slides over to become the merch display. Thirty chairs come out of a back room and other furniture is stashed Tetris-style in their place. Turning the living room into a concert hall used to be a multi-day affair, but the hosts have honed the setup. “We learn something every time about how to do it better,” says Pannell. “Every single time we take this place apart and put it back together.”

All that reshuffling — not to mention upwards of 80 guests — would be an imposition to most, but music was already a constant presence in Baber’s and Pannell’s lives. The house’s name pays tribute to Alex Chilton, lead singer of iconic rock band Big Star, and to the reverential Replacements song about him. “The night we met,” Baber says, “we were joking about someone we knew in common, and I said something about him being a ‘big star,’ and Rob said, ‘Was that an Alex Chilton reference?’ And then I said, ‘Are you a Replacements fan?’ And that was just the moment.”

The pinball room is down the hall

Baber has lived in Richmond since 1993. She grew up in a family that moved around, with older brothers who played guitar. “That was the language my brothers and I still have to this day, [it’s] all around music,” she says. “I started going to shows and have always loved being around musicians … I just have never stopped, because it’s life to me.”

Pannell was raised in Chesterfield with no siblings but found a network of friends who have stayed connected since middle and high school; some even participate in monthly jam sessions, with Rob playing bass. “I got introduced to so much music from that group of friends,” he says. He’s just as likely to receive recommendations from Baber these days, and vice versa. “It’s not uncommon for us to go out to dinner or something on a Friday night,” Pannell says, “and we’ll come back here and we’ll sit at the island and play Spotify, like ‘Ooh, have you ever heard of this band?’”

The same kitchen bustles with conversation as attendees arrive on show nights. The real pre-show action, however, is down the hall in the arcade, which houses everything from Led Zeppelin and Ghostbusters pinball to a vintage Ms. Pac-Man machine. “I’m a product of that time,” Pannell says. “I’m about to be 52, so arcade games and video games are what I did as a kid.”

Pannell isn’t just an avid collector and player; he’s the 2015 RVAPinball City Champ with a wrestling-style championship belt to prove it.

Games blaring, friends catching up, BYOB cans being cracked open — it’s the spitting image of a party in its early stages. But when showtime comes and the couple take the stage to kick things off, the din dissipates, yielding to the one rule at Chilton House, gleefully reaffirmed in unison during the introduction by those already initiated: “Don’t be an asshole.”

The exact wording and ritual of repeating the rule evolved over time, but the intent was immediate, reflecting the hosts’ conviction about not chatting during concerts. “That was a day-one thing for us,” Baber says. “Pretty much every show we go to in Richmond, people are talking, even people who are musicians in bands … This place can’t be that.”

Making space for experimentation

It’s not just about a pet peeve. A predictably rapt audience makes for less predictable sets, as artists feel emboldened to take risks. Jason Narducy’s upcoming performance, for example, will include live string arrangements. In March, Django Haskins, singer for pop-noir band the Old Ceremony, put down his guitar and performed “Papers in Order,” a fan favorite he’s played on countless occasions, on keys for the very first time.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s being broadcast,” Haskins says of his more intimate performances. “I love playing with my band, but I love also playing solo, because I can get a wild hair and try something kind of out there, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m the only one that has to live it down.”

The venue is also an oasis in a financial sense.

“We’re both corporate nerds,” Pannell notes, “and [we] work a lot to be able to do the other stuff … It allows us to do house shows and give every dollar back to the artist.” They’ve chosen to host out-of-town acts exclusively, and Richmond’s location makes for an ideal off-night stop between larger shows in D.C. and North Carolina. “Come here, stay here, we’ll feed you, we’ll put you up,” he says.

As Django Haskins can attest, Pannell might even re-solder your malfunctioning tuning petal while you’re sound-checking. “That was insane,” Haskins says with a laugh. “Just the fact that he was so fearless to figure something out like that … If I’m not mistaken, he set up on the bathroom counter, which is an especially fearless place to do electrical work.”

There’s also the personal benefit of seeing familiar faces while on tour. Chilton bookings routinely evolve into friendships; the very first Chilton event featured an American artist, Keelan Donovan, whom the proprietors befriended after seeing him perform in Ireland. To that end, the couple is diligent in their refusal to “fan-out” when hosting big names, even idols like Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, another repeat Chilton act. “We get to know them as humans, and not as rock stars,” Baber says. “I think that has helped us make stronger connections with them.”

Sometimes it’s the musicians who find strength in the Chilton community. One artist who arrived in Richmond after having been sidelined by the pandemic found rejuvenation. “We were told by their significant other, ‘You gave me him back,’” Baber remembers. “Being able to play brought back a lot of who he is. He just settled back into himself.”

Where a U.S. Senator can jam with a Replacement

Like all venues, Chilton House hit the pause button in early 2020. But as performers and fans were settling back into seeing live music, Pannell and Baber got an offer from a friend with land in the Elmont area to host shows outside. “It was the perfect spot,” she says, “and her doing that allowed us to continue helping out the artists when they’d been stopped because of COVID.”

Dubbed “Chillin’ Outside,” the series-within-a-series provided a taste of the Chilton experience with enough distancing for everyone involved to feel comfortable. One attendee dared to venture a little closer to the stage, however: U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, who contributed guest harmonica as Tommy Stinson’s band, Cowboys in the Campfire, played outside in June of 2021. “[Kaine] was barefoot and he had his harmonicas in one of their kids’ old pencil cases,” Baber recalls. “Anne [Holton] got up and danced a little bit while he was playing. It was a lot of fun.”

Back in the Chilton House living room, normalcy is rounding back into form. Jon Auer of the Posies played in December to a crowd of 50, and Django Haskins’ draw was around 70. Pannell sees it as part of a ramp-up to the way things were before the pandemic. “People are maybe getting back in the groove,” he guesses.

That groove is something the owners of Chilton House embody so completely that Haskins cites it as one of the defining characteristics of playing there. “The thing that they provide that’s really special is this unadulterated love of music,” he says. “A lot of people lose that level of enthusiasm after their 20s or something, but it’s such a great thing to keep and to spread.”

As Angi says: “[Rob] and I during shows a lot of times will just have this moment where we’ll look over at each other and be like, ‘Can you believe that this is our life?’”

Jason Narducy will perform with a sting section at Chilton House on Sunday, April 2. Doors open at 6 p.m. and music starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at chillinatchilton.com. The address is provided after you buy your ticket.


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