By Brian Costello
Yup. You’re still here.
You’re still lugging equipment into some moldy-ass, piss-smelling basement, or up some rickety-steep steps into some loft crammed wall-to-wall with degenerate/idealistic/wide-eyed kids looking for something to do, someplace to be, new sounds, cheap entertainment, true inspiration, whatever it is they/we/you want. Your show’s in Pilsen or Bridgeport or Gainesville or Humboldt Square or Logan Park or Hegewisch or Altamonte Springs or West Town or Mayfair in whatever ice factory/dildo warehouse/former Cubs speakeasy got converted into a space for shows this week. You weave bass amps and bass drums through clusters of art-damaged party dudes and ladies deep in the loud drunken drama of the moment. It occurs to you that you’ve been doing this for twenty goddamn years now, in makeshift spaces like these, starting out as some dorky high-school kid renting out the neighborhood clubhouse used primarily for homeowners-association meetings that overlooked the swampy gator-filled lake, moving on a few years later to some beautifully large ramshackle Gainesville student ghetto home—setting up the show, fliering the town, basking in the magic of hundreds of strangers packed into your home to see the noise, finally making it up to Chicago and wondering if the “house show” exists for bands here, or if it’s the sole province of Art Institute hipster trash trying to make rent/blow money with their ironical booty-dance parties. It took years—the next fucking generation, even!—until another batch of highly motivated 18-24-year-olds (or thereabouts) found the ungentrified spaces on tolerant blocks to make this happen.
Yes, you’re still here, when so many have moved on to immaculately clean condos, purebred pet hamsters, good jobs and responsible, forward-thinking lifestyles, retired to finding excitement primarily through sports teams and the season finales of TV shows. And you’re in for the long-haul, still finding it necessary to plug-in and play, still finding the pure joy in the adrenalined edge of the right-now that live music provides, that exists best in these house shows, through sweat, wobbly floors, questionable p.a.’s, and absolutely none of the rock ‘n’ roll hokum of cleavagey bartendresses plying plastic cups of Bud Light for $5 a pop, insufferable Q101 crap piped into mammoth speakers at unnecessary volumes, and boring workaday assholes who take their marching orders from XRT, Illinois Entertainer and Pitchfork.
In the past two years, dozens of underground show spots have been surfacing, closing, resurfacing, reclosing, and reopening someplace else throughout Chicago, with names like Celery Salt Jungle, Crystal Rock, Ruben’s Palace, Agatucci’s Pizza Roll Emporium, Bloodline, Halfway House, Dr. Who’s Warehouse of Ideas, Mars Sleaze Castle, Mortville, Roxen Boxen Mini-Castle, and Mopery. Some of these places have the cinder-blocked functionality of industry past, others the wood-paneled basement bar vibe of a Midwestern druncle’s mancave circa 1975, others highly decorated visual-arts lofts where the seeing can be just as intense as the hearing. While the idea of having bands play in lofts, basements, art spaces and the like is certainly not some new concept in Chicago and elsewhere—this kind of thing was/is integral to free jazz, house music, no(w) wave, for instance—what is new is how prevalent they seem to be now, and how focused they all are on supporting bands who otherwise wouldn’t be getting the opportunities to play in the regular bars and venues around town. For those who run these spaces, their reasons for turning their living rooms into performance spots run the gamut from the idealism of fostering community and supporting underground music (when not hosting musicians, while many of these spaces have the expected art showings, others also have yoga and meditation classes, offer free schools to learn about whatever topic interests them at the time, have movie nights), to the more practical considerations of using the donation money to make rent. For the people who find these places and attend these shows—a total “word-of-mouth” approach, with addresses texted, Facebook groups, and the like—it’s a great chance to see bands not often playing the more conventional spots due to age restrictions or challenging music that doesn’t exactly go down well with the aforementioned Bud Light; furthermore, most of these shows are generally ten times the fun of a, say, dive-bar gig for one-tenth the price, and in these recessionary bummer times, you can’t argue with that. For bands, it’s the reward of playing for people more in the rip-roaring spirit of a party rather than the older, more jaded audiences commonly found at the bar shows. (Oh, and it’s usually okay to smoke at these places, and they’re all-ages.)
While it’s certainly in the realm of possibility to talk to the dozens involved throughout the city with setting up and coordinating these show spaces in recent years, time and space considerations make it necessary to limit the interviews to Brent, Jim and Ian: three guys who run different spaces around the city—setting up shows, collecting the donations, paying the bands, taking out the trash, and wiping the puke off the walls when the party ends for the night.
Until last week, Brent was in a band with me, but he generally plays in three or four bands, so it seems inevitable that our playing in a band together would happen sooner or later. Besides the bands, he helps set up shows in a half-dozen places around town, including his own house, where he hosted evening backyard summer shows with free barbeque and live music.
The first backyard show he set up was in June of 2008, hosting local party-stalwarts The Yolks, and San Francisco’s The Traditional Fools. Later, he saw Smith Westerns play Reggies in front of ten people, and a nervous barstaff beshitting themselves with worry over kids so young playing in their bar. Brent started getting them shows in his backyard, where the horrid and more than a little ridiculous realities of bars working with teenagers playing rock ‘n’ roll in Daley’s Chicago wasn’t such a concern.
“The first couple shows I’d do everything. I would buy all the food, take donations, be a host, try to hang out,” Brent says. “It would be free, but bands would ask for money, and it was impossible to take care of both. I would make sure it was done before ten, and it would be okay. There’s always a reason to worry about things. Neighbors are usually friendly, but a few people do get mad.”
This led to the one indoor show Brent tried to do at his place, when 150 people showed up to see Nobunny, The Yolks and Smith Westerns and somehow managed to squeeze into his not-large apartment. “I thought the floor was going to cave in,” Brent recalls. “My apartment was super-trashed. There was Silly String all over the ceiling fans. I’m still finding new damages from that show.”
While there are always the worries of shows shut down by police, of the problems inherent in dealing with those attendees who might be too loaded from excessive drinking or drugs and vandalizing property, the difficulties in promoting underground shows when you don’t want undesirable elements showing up, Brent finds the whole experience to be rewarding. “It’s a hobby and I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s good to see people happy and having a good time.”
Jim runs a space named after his cat. It’s in a coach house that used to be a commercial garage. While he has lived there for four years now, he started setting up shows last August. Like many of these underground venues, he tries to book one show a month, sometimes two. It doubles as a rehearsal space for his and his roommates’ bands. The acoustics of the building are set up to match the high sound quality of a recording studio.
For Jim, the advantages to setting up DIY shows are many. “You really get to program the night how you want it,” he says. “You’re not confined by economics. I don’t make money. I pay the bands the money I get from donations. I get to meet people and forge these relationships. People come here to see music.
“We don’t serve beer,” Jim continues. “And there’s no stage, which gives the bands immediate contact with the audience. You get to play for a wider variety of audience. Clubs are 21 and up, and alcohol sales are a big part of that. With shows like these, you get a wider spectrum of people. There’s more latitude to try different things, to take more creative risks.”
At Jim’s space, films are projected onto a giant screen behind the bands. The bands pick the films. When I was there, local band The Runnies played in front of the epic monstrosity “Showgirls,” a hilarious trainwreck of a film that somehow magnified the entertainment value of The Runnies’ spirited garage rock.
On the downside, Jim says that doing this is “a lot of work with no tangible reward. There’s always the clean-up, and the legal ramifications.” The difficulty in having a space close to the alley is having random partygoers spilling out of the space to hang out, and this attracts the police. But the police haven’t shut down the shows; as long as everyone’s brought back inside, and as long as Jim and his roommates keep the alleys clean of party trash, everybody’s happy.
When asked if he thinks this recent burst of house show action will continue, Jim sounds pessimistic, perhaps a little philosophical.
“I feel like time is already running out,” he says. “By its very nature, it’s ad hoc.”
Ian sets up shows with his girlfriend in a basement filled with wood-paneled period charm until mold was discovered in the walls and the landlord (who lives on the top-floor of the building) recently ripped it apart. (He’s replacing the wood-paneling with plain drywall, and the shows should be resuming later in the month.) When they started, they did small shows with their friends—“acoustic stuff, art-gallery shows”—Ian recalls. That changed last September. Brent started sending bands to Ian’s space. “We started to focus on bands coming through town that don’t really have anyplace else to go.” Indeed, this is a problem for many bands coming through Chicago, in the warm months in particular, when the regular venues have been booked months in advance.
They started setting up monthly shows, and for Ian, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There has never been a band we’ve had who we didn’t enjoy,” Ian says. “It’s great seeing people get together and have a great time in a place not everybody knows about in this underground scene.
“I have to say, when White Mystery played, and Francis’s drumkit was getting picked up by everyone in the audience and he kept playing was one of the best times, that, and the Mickey show, when we had footsteps on the ceiling from people trying to crowd surf.”
As for the dangers and the downside, “It’s always a risk doing this. We might have kids who don’t know how to handle their liquor. The clean-up is the worst part.”
What’s remarkable about everyone I’ve talked to who runs these spaces is how generally laid-back neighbors are about these shows, how pragmatic the police usually are, and how friendly, cooperative and respectful these people putting on shows try to be. If they’re not above storefronts or surrounded by blocks of factories, the shows end early, between 9pm and 11pm. You’re far more likely to find instances of sottish asshole behavior around Clark and Addison after a Cubs game, or Rush Street on a typical Saturday night, than you are at these shows.
As for the neighbors, my armchair theory is that these places are usually not that close to the Range Rovered Nouveaux Riche, and their sense of entitlement they bring into the city. Yuppies generally bring these scenes to an abrupt halt faster than anything else. They tend to make neighborhoods as insufferable as crack cocaine does. But, that’s just me, and what I’ve noticed playing in bands around the city these many years.
Be that as it may, it’s a great place and time to play, or be a fan of, underground music in Chicago. Having under-the-radar places to perform, to meet people, to have a great time, to hear something new, is of tremendous importance to a city’s cultural wellbeing. It’s where risks are taken, boundaries are pushed that much further, bands have real opportunities to try… and not only that, the underground spots are wonderful places to get zooed out and sing Dead Milkmen songs with near-strangers because, why not, you’ve been doing this for twenty goddamn years now, so what does it matter if no one knows the words to “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” and “Right Wing Pigeons From Outer Space?”
Not that I’ve ever done that. Just sayin’.