“Living Room People” by Benjamin Morey

Paper “Living Room People” by Benjamin Morey …

[As Benjamin himself explained: “This was written for my senior thesis for my Bachelor’s of Music with a concentration in Ethnomusicology from SUNY Geneseo in 2010.” Benjamin Morey is from Rochester, NY. He blogs at www.benmorey.tumblr.com]

“Jesus keep us safe from the cops” is chanted loudly in a sing-a-long sung by a group of 45 young adults piled into a Rochester, NY living room.  Two performers pace around the room energetically, singing and swinging tambourines while their audience forms a circle around them, stomping their feet and clapping their hands.  They are a husband and wife folk-punk duo called Destroy Nate Allen from Portland, Oregon.  They’ve stopped here for a performance on one of their country-spanning trips, in which they almost exclusively play shows to audiences like this in living rooms and basements.  After their intimate set, the night’s host, and one of the occupants of the house, Tim Avery stands and makes an announcement to the audience to please donate a few dollars for food and gas money to help the band make it to their next show, and he passes a cookie jar around the room.

In the dining room, people crowd around a table, the site of leftovers from the potluck enjoyed before the show.  A section has been cleared to fit hand-printed T-shirts and CDs the traveling band is selling. A few hours ago you would have found here the night’s performers and attendees sharing an assortment of homemade dishes, prepared largely vegetarian or vegan and brought by attendees as a means of donation, an offering as a member of the community or as an act of kindness and understanding for the plight of the traveling musicians.

The house is referred to as The Shark Tank, a moniker necessary to protect the identity of its inhabitants and the address of these community music gatherings.  The Shark Tank, and houses like it are in constant threat of being shut down by police.  In recent years the community that frequents The Shark Tank also took part in shows in more than 5 host-houses that have since been shut down.  The Treehouse, run by Savannah Richards was shut down when a concert was advertised on Myspace and the local NET office found out about it. Her landlord was served with a cease-and-desist order stating that the residence didn’t meet the state building code requirements for public entertainment.  The Landfill, located in Greece, NY stopped holding shows when a neighbor saw the venue listed in Rochester City Newspaper and phoned in a complaint to the town. (Graney 8)

Despite the closing of venues and the scores of opposition, the house show community continues to thrive in Rochester and in small towns and cities all over America.  It’s an underground network of houses, artists and music appreciators making personal connections and attempting to contribute to, and take part in, intimate experiences of pure artistic expression.

My first experience with the house show community was two years ago.  I had transferred to SUNY Geneseo and befriended some members of the radio club. I learned that several of them were living in a house off campus that hosted concerts in their living room. I was asked by one of my new friends to perform some of my own songs at one of their shows. Performing at that show was a group of three Canadians in their early twenties called Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum. Jordaan is 23 years old and has been an active member of the house show community for the past six years as a host, promoter and performer.  His travels have brought him to every mainland state in America except for South Dakota and he’s performed in almost all of them.  In addition to that, he’s played five Canadian provinces.  He estimates that in his six years of traveling he’s performed at between 200 and 300 shows in almost as many houses.  They were beginning a tour of the North Eastern United States, their 11th U.S. tour.  I first met them at the large vegetarian potluck that preceded the show.  I learned that they were playing for several weeks in a new state almost every day.  I also learned that they were touring in a car, had very little money and no merchandise to sell because it’s illegal to bring goods over the Canadian/United States border with intention to sell them. However, because of the hospitalities extended to them from their hosts, and the donations collected at each show, it was economically sustainable for them to tour for a long time without actually selling anything.  I asked Jordaan how much they needed to make from each show to continue touring:

“The least you can make at a show depends on how many people are on the tour and how you’re traveling. When I greyhound travel, I have paid for my transit in advance with the greyhound bus pass, so as much as it’s nice to make that money back, there’s no worry about making money to get to the next town, only enough to feed myself, which you can do pretty cheaply if you do it right, or if you need to. But it’s different if you’re in a car and have a lot of people with you. If it’s just me, the most I need to make at a show is probably 20 bucks, to feed myself for the night and the next day before the next show since if I’m alone, I’m on the bus. In a car, it depends on how long the next drive is. In the northeast, generally about 40-60 [dollars] is needed per show to fill up the tank and feed you and your tourmates, if you’re with one or two other people, because in the northeast the drives aren’t usually long. In the south or the west, you need to make more at each show because the drives are [much] longer.” (Mason)

During their performance, they shut off all the lights in the house and sat on the floor around a single lamp on the ground.  They sang original dark folk stories and accompanied themselves on banjo and nylon string guitar, while stomping on their instrument cases.  They performance was extremely dynamic, at times they whispered and plucked gently, and at other times they strummed furiously and screamed.  They used no form of amplification and met the eye level of their audience.  I was struck by the intimacy of the performance and the lack of barrier between audience and performer.

After their performance most of the audience stayed and had conversations with them, making friendships and connections for future shows.  I began to realize that the relationship between the performers and the audience in this community wasn’t that of artist and fan that I had been accustomed to, but rather a relationship based on friendship and mutual admiration. Admiration based on common interest and appreciation of artistic expression.

The members of the house show community are generally in their twenties or thirties, college educated and sober. Members of the community tend to share certain political and societal views. However, the location of the house in the country, the size of the town and whether or not there’s a college nearby can strongly affect the experience of the gathering and the values of the audience in attendance.

“People involved in the house show scene tend to be more political and leftist/anarchist, but not always. In college towns especially the ideals of any given house or venue tend to be in constant flux because the actual population of the town is constantly changing, and depending on the school that’s in the town and the kind of people that gravitate to said school, the shows can end up being very different.”    (Mason)

The ethos of the house show community is what makes the experience of being a member of the community so appealing. It is a community that above all else values humanity and encourages personal relationships. On a cold winter evening last December, about two miles from the SUNY Geneseo campus, I arrived at a farmhouse a few of my friends had been living in for the school year.  My friend and bandmate Becky Lovell had invited a band we all admired to stop there on the tour of the east coast, play a show and have a place to stay.  Latecomers to the show opened the kitchen door to find around 50 students crowded into and pouring out of a large kitchen where the band was set up playing loud indie rock, with two trumpet players standing on an island counter, a drummer set up next to the refrigerator, a keyboardist next to the sink and the singer in front of the pantry door.  The band was Nana Grizol from Athens, Georgia.  After finishing one song, singer Theo Hilton explained that the next was inspired by the novel “Just Above My Head” by William Baldwin and asked if anyone in the crowd if they’d read it.  There was a pause and before counting in the song he said, “I recommend it”. Theo Hilton has been a performer, both electric in a full bands and solo acoustic, attendee and host in the community since 1999. He’s played approximately 200 house shows in 45 states, as well as in Canada and Germany.

“I would say that the ethos of the house show community is based around inclusivity and reasonability. Having a show at a house costs very little, as opposed to a club, which makes it possible to charge less money or be donation based, it is very personal, often allowing more opportunity for performers, promoters and show-goers to be on the same page and participating with each other, and is all around based more in having a feeling of family or tight knit community than any alternative. For me, that’s probably the best thing; to have the opportunity outside of being a performer to talk about my viewpoints with people at shows and hear theirs, creating a two sided conversation. It’s like a song is a conversation starter sometimes.” (Hilton)

Two weeks before Nana Grizol’s performance I was at the farmhouse when my friends received a letter in the mail.  A fan of Nana Grizol’s living in Rochester handwrote the letter.  He had seen on their website that they were planning on playing a show in Geneseo and had posted an address.  Usually, finding an address for a host house online is uncommon, however, Becky had given them permission to post it online because the location of the farmhouse was remote, neighbor free and there are no music clubs in Geneseo that might feel threatened by the competition.  The writer’s name was Devin and his letter was simply asking if he could be allowed to attend the concert or if it was a closed event.  This personal and polite gesture is a fine example of the ethos of the house show community. She wrote back, happily and enthusiastically inviting him to attend.  On the day of the concert he arrived with a vegetable drawer full of three bean salad to contribute to the potluck.  He proved a valuable member of the community, attending nearly all the shows held at the farmhouse and at other houses run by members of the community he met there, giving people rides to shows and always contributing significant donations to touring bands. In addition, when our own music group was touring, he called friends of his living in towns along our route and asked for help booking shows.

Those in the community that play the role of host are an invaluable component to the functionality of the culture.  They are responsible for booking the artists, promoting the event selectively, effectively choosing who will be able to participate in the event, in many cases making food and protecting their house from being shut down.  They are the cultivators of the community.

Tim Avery of Rochester, NY has been involved in the community in several capacities for the past four years. He’s been a performer, recordist/archiver and most notably a host.  He runs a house venue called The Shark Tank that hosts one show every month, booking performers from all over the country as well as local artists. Tim is not only a show organizer but also a community organizer that works with other hosts to overcome issues like police interference. In addition to booking house shows he also books for a music club in his city called The Bug Jar. Tim says

“The most important thing a good host can do is to provide a welcoming environment, i.e. food and friendly atmosphere, that is stable and safe from law enforcement. In Rochester, this entails the creation of a house moniker and keeping the address off any facebook/myspace/message board/handbill invites. Another thing is to just keep things fun and go with the flow of the evening. We’ve always based shows around the touring acts, so I try to limit their number and focus donations around them. We usually give folks a couch to crash on as well.” (Avery)

Performers see hosts as friends and ambassadors to their small part of the greater house show community. Jordaan Mason describes a performer’s ideal host:

“An ideal host has promoted your show well, is actually excited that you’re there, wants to show you around their city and introduce you to people, will let you use their kitchen to make a meal in (and will point you in the direction of the best places to get food cheaply) and give you a place to sleep.”(Mason)

Some events are organized months in advance, while others come together in a matter of days. Most events in the house show community are organized through word of mouth and personal relationships. Aaron Scott has been a member of the community in New York and Washington states. He’s hosted shows and played house shows in 40 states and Canada.  He has been booking tours for nearly ten years.

“It’s really all a referral network.  It’s really hard to start out, that’s for sure.  But you just keep networking and trying to find more names of people who do shows.  You ask a band you know who has toured if they know anyone in town X.  Then you contact that person, and hopefully at least get a response that they can’t do it.  Then you ask them what the scene is like in that town and they know anyone who can do it.  A great way to jumpstart this process is to tour with a band that has done it before and sets up the tour themselves.  Then you can build those contacts at the show, which is a great audition for getting future shows. “ (Scott)

Hosts are often called or written by performers who have heard of them from other performers in the community that have played at their house and had a good experience. And likewise, performers who have reached a certain level of popularity or garnered a positive reputation in the community will be written to by hosts asking them to come play at their house. For several years Julian Koster, member of extremely popular and acclaimed group Neutral Milk Hotel, has been embarking on Christmas caroling tours, in which he is invited with hundreds of handwritten letters to come into people’s homes to sing, play Christmas carols on his singing saw, tell stories and do magic tricks. He chooses hosts whose letters have the most creativity and warmth. On these tours, he performs in several houses a night. On his previous caroling tour he performed in over 100 homes in a matter of a month. Koster says

“These sorts of trips are the most adventurous and exciting musical travels I have ever been a part of. There’s a special magic possible that could only happen in them. There is a warmth and kindness and adventurousness of the people inviting us and all of their friends that leads always to extraordinary and fun times that are unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.” (Koster)

Since this is an underground community with legitimate fears of houses being discovered and shut down, hosts must go about promoting events in a cautious way.  They personally contact existing members of the community to notify them of events and encourage them to bring friends that they think would enjoy the community and could be a responsible member.  This word of mouth promotion is another factor contributing to the intimacy of the community.  It’s also necessary to book these shows on a personal level because unlike a music club, a host must control the amount and quality of the people they invite into it.  Without this discretion, a show could easily get out of hand, and these are the shows that attract negative attention from neighbors and law enforcement.

So what exactly makes these gatherings illegal? There are a few things standing between the house show community and lawful legitimacy.  This first is licensing. “The concern is if the facility is not designed for that particular use” says Amy Nichols, municipal attorney for the city of Rochester. She explains that an entertainment license – bestowed on a building, not an individual or group – is needed if there is live music. And the building needs to be inspected by the fire department and NET to be sure it’s in compliance with codes. (Graney 8) A second concern is noise. Most towns and cities have noise ordinances that go into effect around 10 o’clock at night, violation of these ordinances can result in a fine upwards of $500. This is a concern for shows where electric bands have been booked to perform. A third concern is that it’s unlawful to accept money without first registering as a business and paying taxes on it. However, since most houses refer to any money collected as donation, they can get around this law.

Many outside the house show community write off the importance of their events.  Despite the respectability and organization of these functions, they are continually lumped in with out-of-control house parties. Several of the houses in Rochester, NY were targeted and shut down after a series of disruptive and violent house parties caught the city’s attention. There have been at least five houses shut down in Rochester alone in the past three years, but it’s a problem that affects the community nationally. Paul Baribeau is 30 years old and lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He is a very successful and well known member of the anti-folk and house show communities. Paul has been touring and playing houses for five years. In that time, he says, 300 house shows would be a low estimate. In that time he’s played at several shows that ended in police intervention and at many houses that have been shut down. “The cops come, everyone leaves. I played a festival once that was broken up. The police threatened everyone with tear gas and jail time. Almost every house I’ve ever played is gone. They last about 6 months to a year.” (Baribeau). On the opposite side of the country, in Athens, Georgia Theo Hilton has had similar experiences. “It’s pretty common. I’ve never seen it become anything more than the police ordering the show to stop, though I’ve heard more intense stories that involved arrests, riots, showgoers defacing a police car, all kinds of stuff.”

In order to protect their house, hosts must take certain measures to avoid police interference.  Tim Avery and Theo Hilton discusses how:

“Keep the address a secret at all costs! That’s the bottom line. Even if it means going word-of-mouth for months in order to build a following, it’s worth the effort to keep the doors open. The second big thing is reaching out to your neighbors. Invite them over, and not just for shows. Be a presence in the community so that people know you’re out to promote art and culture, rather than having them suspect you of being the rowdy college kids with guitar noise blaring at all hours. Also, try and regulate the noise so that you’re done by ten pm. Most sound ordinances go into effect at that hour, so it’s best to finish by then if possible. At [The Shark Tank], we’ve been very careful, and therefore haven’t had any trouble whatsoever. Building relationships with our neighbors, inviting them to shows, and finding a house where there are baffles to sound, i.e. parking lots and office buildings nearby, has helped to reduce the number of potentially annoyed neighbors.” (Avery)

“The ideal is to exist and be a part of the community around the house rather than in spite of it, especially because show houses are most often located in poorer neighborhoods where they could do without the stress the most.” (Hilton)

A big threat to the house show communities centered in cities are the music club and bar owners who see these concerts as a threat to their businesses.  They have been known to seek out houses that have put an address on the Internet and call in fake noise complaints to the police or expose them for violation of zoning laws.  Tim Avery of Rochester has had experience with this at several houses he’s been involved in.

“The major club-owners in Rochester definitely watch the message boards, Facebook and Myspace for illegitimate shows. They will call in false complaints just to shut us down because of our threat to their economic hegemony. It’s kind of a game of follow-the-money-trail; the cops I’ve spoken with don’t have a clue about what’s going on at shows; they only respond to complaints, regardless of whether or not they’re founded upon actual evidence. I know of four or five incidents where the cease and desist orders handed to me at house venues were inaccurate and founded upon speculation rather than fact. This is further evidence that the cops themselves aren’t the ones stirring the pot; plus, why would they expend their money on a bunch of calm, safe, and kind kids when there’s all the violence going on downtown?

This resistance is really, deep down, a result of anxiety on the part of club owners; at the core of the matter is a fear that desires to protect its own conception of economics, of a market, and of a way of being. We–in the house-venue, alternative-culture, non-traditional crowd–are waging a war of ideas; a war fought with banjos and vocal cords, guitars and tambourines.” (Avery)

Musical gathering and performances in people’s homes are by no means a new occurrence. While the current house show community is quite unique, it has roots in several traditions, most notably the punk and folk cultures.  The DIY, or do it yourself, ethic of this community comes from a punk background. Most of the participants in the house show community share contempt for money playing a role in their experience.  This belief of money’s negative effect on the legitimacy of artistic expression and rejection of capitalism has long been an ideal of the punk community. This translates into donations instead of cover charges, homemade t-shirts and hand-assembled packaging sold by the performers, instead of merchandise ordered through a manufacturer. Looking around a house show you would be hard-pressed to find a brand or a logo on anyone’s clothing. The punk community has been known for many years to hold concerts in basements and art spaces. The rejection of capitalism is one of the largest reasons this community exists in houses and away from bars and clubs.

The political undercurrent of the modern house show community is also drawn from the punk and folk ethos.  You’ll find that most members of the community are left leaning, to say the least. Some are anarchic and some radical reformists.  Gatherings are often platforms for political or religious discussion.  At many shows, the performers will openly share their beliefs and opinions on societal trends and causes important to them, or inner conflict and encourage discussion.  In September of 2010, I performed at a show attended by about 100 mostly college-aged young adults in New Paltz, NY.  The final act of the night, Paul Baribeau began to talk about acceptance and equality.  He mentioned a concert he played in a bar the night previous where the singer of a rock band announced that the women in the audience should remove their shirts.  Paul talked about his sadness when witnessing women being held in this regard and pleaded to the women in the audience not to tolerate that sort of attitude from anyone, to stand up for themselves.  He went on to speak about Christianity.  His speech was mostly based on the topic of Christians keeping same-sex marriage illegal, and though he has Christian friends, how he can’t accept the Christian “organization” as a whole. He went as far as to say, “I hate Christians, and I know in my heart that I shouldn’t say that, but I know in my heart that I do”. The audience witnessed a performer vulnerably trying to make sense of a serious inner conflict, as if he were explaining it to a close friend.  Unlike a public venue, these sorts of views can be shared at a house show. Once a performer is finished, they become another member of the community, available for discussion and discourse with anyone else in the room.

This sort of open discourse is one of the traits the house show community takes from the folk community.  For many years, folk music gatherings have been a haven for artists to share their views on issues like politics and religion, where performers challenge their audience and encouraging their audience to challenge them in return.  These communities also share the policy of inclusivity.  Everyone is welcome, and despite the strong opinions one encounters in these circles no one is meant to felt alienated.  This inclusivity can also be seen in the meals prepared and dishes brought to these gatherings.  Most of the potlucks that accompany a house concert consist of almost entirely vegetarian or vegan food.  Any chance of food-related alienation is removed and attendees can feel universally, a bit more comfortable.  Theo Hilton of Athens, Georgia was simultaneously involved in building Athen’s house show community and in a food justice organization called Food Not Bombs. “For a long time most houses I would go to cooked vegetarian, when cooking for a crowd at least, and that was something I liked a lot because, like the way Food Not Bombs thinks of it, serving food that the most people would feel okay about eating is the best way to make the most people feel included.” (Hilton)

The folk community also has a tradition of capitalist rejection, with a rich history of performances in houses and other private arenas.  The aspect of songs written for and by common people is shared.  People coming together to experience or make something as a collective without a barrier between audience and performer. Host Tim Avery describes this phenomenon; “I honestly enjoy house shows so much more, and I really hate money. I mean… it gets in the way of what the whole purpose of what we do should be: presenting something fun and amazing to people who want to be a part of it.” (Avery)

The musical qualities of many performers in the house show community seem to be a blend of folk and punk styles. Most commonly with punk attitudes and song construction with the adoption of folk instruments such as acoustic guitars, banjos, and mandolins. When asked what musical qualities were most prevalent in his experience Jordaan Mason said: “I would say, especially in America, “folk-punk,” and by that I mean: very fast songs played on acoustic guitars.” (Mason)

The content of the songs tend to share similar themes with both the folk and punk communities.  Aaron Scott left a political punk rock group several years ago and began to pursue a folk style to convey his politically charged messages.  He describes the songwriting he’s encountered while traveling with these songs.

“There’s definitely plenty of anti-war songs, general progressive politics, anti-racist or anti-homophobia lyrics, gender politics.  But to be honest, I think there’s more songs about relationships and life in general.  I would say the theme of being unsure how to lead one’s life is the most commonly explored idea.  That’s my anecdotal opinion, but it makes a certain amount of sense that, in crafting an alternative space for ourselves, we’d be universally concerned with our role in greater society and to what degrees we should comply/resist its norms.  I guess that’s the entire debate over what it means to be “punk.”” (Scott)

Aside from songs with politically charged themes other commonly explored motifs are love and the common folk idea of romanticizing travel. Artists writing for this audience take advantage of the intimate nature of the performance, often sharing private details of their lives, or attempting to share their point of view on a controversial topic.  Jordaan Mason attempts to describe the songs of the community.

“Songs at house shows tend to be personal. [There are] a lot of heterosexual guys with guitars singing about girls who broke their hearts. A lot of songs about train-hopping and drinking and aimless wandering and politics. A lot of songs about friends and bikes and fun. But also: ghost stories; intense, personal secrets; knock-knock jokes; white magic; houses torn down by the howling of strangers, by the clapping of everyone together.” (Mason)

Performers of house shows are drawn to the community because of its intimate nature and pure platform for expression. They’re able to connect with their audience and express themselves openly. Performers appreciate the personal nature of the network and find lasting friendships in the gatherings of likeminded individuals.  Because of the hospitalities extended to performers by hosts and the donations contributed by members of the community, performers are able to travel exclusively within the warm and inclusive atmospheres of houses rather than the disconnected and commercial atmospheres of the bar culture. Aaron Scott explains the appeal of performing within the house show community:

“The most appealing aspect of house show culture to me is when the house is open to more than just the show.  I really love being on tour and playing at a house where they make dinner for the touring band, and you sit around and talk with the residents of the house.  Then their friends trickle in, and you meet them.  And then more people show up, and the show starts and you realize that the kid who made you dinner is also an amazing guitar player.  And after her band is done, you can talk to her about music or about food or about whatever.  And then you play and people stay to watch you because you’ve built a temporary bond with them.  And after the show, people still hang out and there’s a real connection with people, no matter how tenuous or brief.” (Scott)

Many performers are also hosts in their hometowns.  It’s common for a performer who has a good experience playing in the home of a community member that also tours to return the favor when that host takes on the role of traveling performer.  Trading shows for shows is a very regular occurrence.

Many members of the house show community reject the bar and music club scene because of the drastic difference of the experience.  Since there’s no stage, the performer is at eye level with everyone in the space, making an immediate connection between performer and audience members. Similarly, fellow audience members make connections in a way they wouldn’t at a typical bar or club.

“You actually meet people. That’s the biggest difference. If you’re going to travel around the country and play music, it’s nice to actually experience people and talk to them, right? There’s this weird thing in bars where people don’t talk to each other a lot of the time. Also, you’re in charge of the show. What the price at the door is, no one has to worry about whether or not they can afford to come or if they can afford to “drink” all night since that’s what the bars want. House shows are all ages… the list goes on.” (Mason)

Most performers of the house show community wouldn’t play at a bar and most of their admirers wouldn’t attend a show in a bar. For these people, the house show atmosphere is necessary for them to experience live music.  It’s where performers prefer to be heard and where audiences prefer to see them.  Hosts have no overhead, and almost no set up involved which allows them to give all donations to the performers. Almost no hosts in the house show community take any money for themselves.

The community is constantly changing.  Houses are shut down or hosts move out while new houses become established, performers outgrow the lifestyle of sleeping on floors while younger artists embark on the excitement of traveling, new members discover and enter the community while older members move on.

“The house show community will always be around but it will always be in constant flux. I lived in a house venue for two years, and when it was over, I was done. I don’t want to live in a house venue anymore… at least not for a long while. It’s a very time-consuming operation and you have to frequently give up your own space. I’m very, very happy that I did it, but house show venues are the kind of things that are temporary, really; they’re around for a little while and then people move and change their minds and need to do something else for a while. And as long as someone else is always willing to take the reigns, which someone usually is, depending on the size of the community, they’ll be around. I’ve seen a lot of towns go through phases of being very active, and then not, and then active again… a lot of the smaller college towns in New York state are great examples of that.” (Mason)

This constant change puts even more stress on performers to develop personal relationships with members of the community. Houses are shut down or hosts move and the locations of community venues move with them.

“I think on both a local and a macro level there is an ebb and flow to this stuff. Scenes go through renaissance periods with explosive growth and lots of positive energy sometimes, and start to feel like just going through the motions at other times. I think these cycles are pretty linked between different places because maybe there will be a really cool scene going on that inspires other places.” (Hilton)

At its core, the house show community is a group of people all around the United States, among other countries, trying to share something.  They help one another to create platforms for artistic expression and truly unique experiences, free from the adulteration of commercialism, that can’t be found anywhere else.  Performers travel great distances and attempt to share their music with as many people as possible and connect with them on a level that can’t be achieved in a bar or music club.  Hosts open their homes and invite these performers and appreciators to participate in performances free from alienation, and they cultivate the community.  A community that is ever changing: shrinking in some areas and flourishing in others.  They adopt an ethos and their musical sensibilities from the punk and folk communities that came before them. However, despite the well meaning of the house show community, it’s technically operating outside the law.  Their events violate zoning and licensing laws, and must remain underground and under the radar of local police.  This necessity to go unnoticed has led to personal and word of mouth organization and, along with the intimate nature of the performances, has made the house show community above all else one by and for the people.

Field Work:  A look at a tour within the house show community

In December of 2009 my music group New Socks embarked on a 14 day tour of the American east coast.  Before this, we had cultivated a house show community in our hometown of Geneseo, NY. We had played the role of hosts in the community for two years, inviting traveling groups to play and providing them with a friendly and hospitable atmosphere.  When it came time to book our tour we contacted several of the performers we had hosted and some were able to return the favor for us.  We also wrote letters to and called hosts we had heard of through other bands and friends within the community. We traveled in a minivan with the three members of our band and four other friends that composed two additional musical groups.

On the first day of our tour we traveled to a show that was set up for us in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Harlem NYC.  This was the temporary home of a former school friend and member of the Geneseo house show community who now attends City College for community organizing.  We performed for about 30 people, mostly college students around 22 years old. Other performers included a female folk/blues singer songwriter who played an acoustic guitar and college student who played songs by himself on an electric guitar. On several occasions during the evening our host Winston passed a hat around for donations, which at the end of the night, totaled about 75 dollars. We had sold 5 cds, which covered gas and tolls to get to New York City and left us enough to fill the gas tank. We slept on the floor of the apartment and in the morning, Winston had food for us to eat and one of the attendees who also slept over gave us haircuts.

The second day we played in a basement of a punk house called “The Castle Gay” in South Philadelphia.  The house belonged to a band that had played at our house in Geneseo a few months prior called Hermit Thrushes.  The house was cold and dirty. Upon arriving our hosts made food for us using vegetables from a local farmers market. We played in the basement with a young man who played a Turkish oud and sang folk songs, as well as a group called folklore who played loud indie rock.  There was a hat upstairs with a sign for donations.  All the donations were given to us and totaled about 55 dollars. At the end of the night we sat and talked with the band members that lived in the house and we slept on the dirty couches and carpets of a very cold living room.

The third day we explored Philadelphia and drove to Richmond, Virginia where we played another basement show at a house called “Huzzy House” where a band called Hot Lava was living.  There were close to 40 in attendance, nearly all in their twenties. Two punk bands played before us and for the sake of volume we borrowed their electric instruments and asked the drummer of one to accompany us.  There was no donation asked. Instead, they sold beer and gin and tonics in the basement for a dollar each and gave all the money from alcohol sales to us.  This was about 80 dollars.  After the show we stayed with a couple from one of the bands called The Color Kittens.  They ordered Indian food for us and we ate together and discussed their town and the community for indie and punk bands in the area.  Basement shows were popular there; few venues in the area were an option for DIY bands. Upon noticing a collection of textbooks, several members of my group engaged them in a long conversation concerning sociological theory. We slept on their floor and in the morning they made us coffee and pancakes. Both meals we were served were vegan. They also offered us their shower.

On the fourth day of our tour we played in the living room of an upscale apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  This was the home of a college professor, and friend of one of my bandmates who had met him at a music festival, as well as his wife and baby daughter.  Upon our arrival he offered us power outlets for our cell phones and ordered us food from a local vegetarian restaurant. The attendees of this concert were all middle-aged husbands and wives with their young children. There was no donation collected but in contrast to the previous shows we sold music to almost all of the attendees and left with 50 dollars.  We stayed with a cousin of a member of our group in Durham, NC.  There we slept on the floor and in the morning were able to shower. They served us a large breakfast and gave us a fond farewell.

Next, we drove to Athens Georgia, the home of one of our tour mates.  We stayed in Athens for three days and played two shows.  The first was in the living room of a banjo playing singer-songwriter named Wyatt, that performed under the name Werewolves, that attended the University of Georgia.  There were about 20 young adults in attendance. No donation was asked but our host fed us and we sold a few cds, leaving the show with about 30 dollars.  We were able to return this favor to Wyatt when his tour brought him to Geneseo a few months later. Again we stayed at our tour-mate’s house, sleeping on the couch and the floor.

The following day we played at a club in downtown Athens called “The 40 Watt”, this was the only legitimate venue we performed at on our tour.  The show was set up for us by a folk/indie band called Nana Grizol that had performed at our house in Geneseo earlier in the year.  The show was 18 and over, and we performed on a stage with microphones for around 80 people.  At the end of the night we split the money the club had allotted us with Nana Grizol and took 125 dollars.  This was the largest amount of money we would make from a single show on the tour.  And enabled to fund the next days drive to Roanoke, Virginia.

In Roanoke, we played at a community art space.  The show was set up for us by a college-aged folk band we contacted through calling a member of the community there who was a friend of a member of the community in Geneseo.  The show was set to take place immediately following a reception for a community bike ride.  A large potluck took place from overlapping attendees of the show and the bike reception.  Many of the bikers stayed for the concert and a few carried conversations with us after the show, surprised by what they had stumbled in to.  The group we played with, The Missionaries, wrote ballads about love and American folk figures. Accompanying themselves on violin, banjo and guitar. We stayed with our contact Mason, the friend of a friend, and were able to sleep on his floor and use his shower.

The next day we drove to New Paltz, NY.  The house we were to play belonged to a band we’ve long been close friends with and exchanged shows with called Klessa.  We were greeted with hugs and a large vegan meal made by our hosts. We shared stories of our tour, and were pleased to see many friends from home that made a long trip to see the last show of our tour.  We played for around 40 college students. Another act on the show, a young singer-songwriter who performed under the name Adrian Aardvark was beginning a tour, so we split the donations, which were collected proactively by our hosts in a cookie jar. Our share totaled 55 dollars.  We spent the night playing games with our hosts and fellow performers and slept once more on couches and carpet.  In the morning our hosts prepared a large waffle breakfast and offered us their shower.

Upon arriving home we were left with 100 dollars more than we started with after gas and toll expenses.  In many cases, our food was provided for us from hosts, every night we were offered a place to sleep, and our personal expenses were minimal.  Economically speaking the trip was completely sustainable.

Works Cited

Allen, Nate. Personal interview. 25 July 2009.

Avery, Tim. Personal interview. 23 September 2010.

Baribeau, Paul. Personal interview. 11 September 2010.

Hilton, Theodore. Personal interview. 02 January 2010.

Graney, Jen. “Not Your Neighbor’s Drunken House Party.” Rochester City Newspaper 30 Apr. 2008: 6.

Koster, Julian. Email interview. 11 December 2009.

Lovell, Becky. Personal interview. 17 October 2010.

Mason, Jordaan. Personal interview. 08 October 2009.


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