Eugene's house concert scene is slowly resurfacing. Just don't tell anyone.
By Chuck Adams • Images by Sreang Hok
It's hard to track down and report on something that doesn't want its existence known. Such was the case with the giant squid (until Japanese scientists finally snapped a photo of one last year), and such is the case with Eugene's "underground" house concert scene. Problem is, with online social networking replacing word-of-mouth and printed flyers, it's easier than ever to know where the next house concert is going down. You just need the right MySpace or Facebook "friends."
Prone to ignoring the local press and paranoid about the authorities, Eugene's house venues have flamed and flickered over the past ten years. With good reason: most houses are rentals, the new tenants are not always as enthusiastic about putting on shows as the last, the number of local bands has dwindled, etc. Sometimes the police would simply tell them to cease and desist.
|The Party Tigers play The Lorax|
|Just People play the Campbell Club|
|Muke plays The Lorax|
"It was constant shutdowns," Bryan Fields says while showing me his collection of wrinkled concert posters and photographs from the Eugene house concert scene in the '90s. "They'd get shut down, and then a month or two later they'd start doing shows again." The demand for shows, Fields says, was too strong. "No matter who lives there, these houses are known as houses of rock and punk."
These houses had nicknames like Le Sous-Sol Collective, The Warehouse, My House and The Monkeyhouse. Frequently they hosted impromptu gatherings after shows at the now defunct Icky's Teahouse, the notorious punk rock venue and anarchist hangout. Fields says he remembers shows with more than 100 people "just packed in the basement." In 2008, those venues are no longer on the house concert radar. One former venue at 13th and Washington, simply called The Basement, still manages to collect a dozen or so too-cool-for-school hipsters on its front porch for hangout activities pretty much every day, but the music there has since died down. So what happened?
Some could say the scene was mainstreamed. According to its website, John Henry's was born when Bruce Hartnell of the local punk group The Detonators "wanted to take the Eugene basement music scene into a permanent above ground location." But turning an unregulated all-ages scene into a 21 and over nightclub that must adhere to strict OLCC laws effectively drew a line in the sand.
In Portland the lack of all-ages venues has spawned a flourishing house concert scene, one that recent PDX expat John Gotti describes as "very much kept alive by high schoolers," but the proliferation of clubs and concert halls in Eugene — many of them all-ages like the McDonald Theatre, Cozmic Pizza and WOW Hall — eclipses the demand for basement shows. But low demand hasn't spelled the death of basement shows altogether, just flipped it. "What ends up happening [in Eugene]," Gotti explains, is that high school and college students "wind up going to venues, and the twentysomething average working man goes to house shows."
In the past two months I have learned about nine house concerts and attended four of them. And, while I didn't find Gotti's explanation exactly to be the case, it did seem odd to see more twentysomethings than teens.
Starting around 2002, after a string of alcohol-fueled riots that broke out in the West University neighborhood, there was also what seemed to be a cop crackdown on house concerts. Its effect was to reduce the type and scale of house shows and, to this day, to make house concert organizers anxious about any coverage they receive in the local press. One venue requested that I not identify it (or its residents) by name, so I have used a pseudonym, Valhalla, in all references. Another venue did not reply to my emails.
The Twin Towers of Cooperation
It's January, and the winter wind is whipping through the alley off Alder Street as I enter The Lorax's basement, donate some cash to the evening's cause (something about reproductive rights) and walk upstairs into the cozy mingle areas. At The Lorax, most shows are fundraisers for one cause or another, whether it's animal rights, women's rights, recycling programs, veganism promotion or what have you. This night I eat chocolate vaginas, and a friend hands me a beer. As with all house venues, it's BYOB, and bottles of Mirror Pond or cans of Busch Light hang from enthusiastic concertgoers' hands.
The Campbell Club and The Lorax Manner are two neighboring student-housing co-ops that use their rigid rules of organization and division of labor not only to whip up wholesome meals, clean shared bathrooms and raise vegetables in the front yard but also to put on amazingly well organized (and well attended) house concerts. Some may reject the "house" venue label for these two huge, multi-storied co-ops, but my definition is a simple one. A house venue is any place where people live and sleep and also happen to put on shows. Tonight's headlining act amazingly isn't a freshman rock band (they were the openers); it's the Afro-Brazilian percussion ensemble Samba Já.
When Samba Já's 20-plus members enter all decked out in sparkly, sequined costumes, the small performance space suddenly compresses as people as young as 16 and as old as 26 throb in a very tight mass. (It is easy to pack a room when a house's nearly 25 residents invite several friends apiece.) The smell and heat of body odor becomes overwhelming before someone opens a window and lets the frigid winter air cool off the dancers. The lights flicker on and off; a strobe light is turned on, but then someone kicks the plug out of the socket. Samba Já forms two rows in the room, and the show becomes a surround sound experience of the tallest order. At one point the band blows a whistle that sounds eerily like a fire alarm. About 15 people, thinking this to be the case, leave the room. The band plays on, and the fire alarm, if it indeed really was a fire alarm, is forgotten.
In the midst of this, I retreat to the restroom. The toilet is shaking violently to the thunderous dancing going on in the house. Later, Samba Já bandleader Jake Pegg describes this show to me as the "craziest gig" they'd ever performed at The Lorax. "And that's saying something," he adds.
From a Basement on a Hill
It is raining, and the road to Valhalla is a long one. The house sits near the end of a road near campus. I pull up to two dudes pushing their bikes up the hill and ask them if they're going to Valhalla. They say yes and point to a muddy driveway leading to a well-worn house that looks imported from a scene in Animal House. I enter through the front door, and Patty, one of the house residents, greets me and shows me the way to the basement. I ask her what happened to Valhalla, that I'd heard it had gone on hiatus. She says that they have had to scale back the number of concerts due to too many noise complaints from the neighbors. The neighboring houses are all mini-mansions with groomed lawns and tended gardens. Valhalla is what Eugene used to be: rough around the edges, a bit unkempt, a youthful vibe of shared community and destiny. Their neighbors are what Eugene is now: fenced, remodeled, low tolerance levels, private, older, in bed by 10 pm.
The basement is L-shaped and ice cold. Most people keep their coats and woven beanies on as they sip from bottles of Pabst, alternately listening to the opening act, WeGo, and mingling with their friends. The BYOB rule makes for a touchy situation as demand easily trumps supply and the nearest convenience store is more than a mile away. The scene is equal parts flannel-and-beards and blue jeans hipster chic, as if the former inhabitants of Max's Tavern and Indigo District were resurrected for one night. Average age guesstimate: 23. WeGo plays a nearly three-hour opening set of droning vocals and jam session guitar virtuoso. A cheap fog machine adds a nice, trashy touch. Another Valhalla resident, Leroy, leans in and tells me about the band members' history of growing up "in the sticks" with no electricity or running water; they had nothing better to do than play music. In between sets, people go outside and take cover under the huge porch to shoot the shit, smoke cigarettes and/or get some fresh air.
At around 11 pm Portland band The Morals take over. The crowd is inches away from band members Ben and Casey Moral (real names Ben Hubbird and Casey Jarman). Later, attendee John Gotti tells me that seeing The Morals in such an intimate space "felt very right, at least for this band." And he's right; The Morals are very much a participatory act, at one point asking the audience to join them in covering The Blow's "Parentheses" while Jarman runs upstairs to use the restroom. Someone in the audience drinks Hubbird's beer, for which he demands a replacement (the scarcity of booze being palpable as it is). Others are walking behind the band and taking pictures of their friends in the front row. There are a handful of dudes huddled around the soundboard, smoking and talking loudly. Before launching into the final song, Jarman blurts out, "It's so great to be sharing this basement with you tonight!"
The Morals are indeed sharing a basement with a history of diverse musicians, small and large. The Thermals, Mirah, The Shaky Hands and The Strangers have all played Valhalla. Portland's New Hot Band, Eskimo & Sons, which Hubbird lauds as so well known in the Portland house concert scene that "you could probably tell only two or three people that they were playing somewhere and the place would be packed just from word of mouth," also made their Eugene debut at Valhalla. In a recent online tour diary entry, the band vaguely declares that "For all that is shitty in Eugene, [Valhalla] is extra great."
The residents of Shady Pines, a venue located just off downtown, are probably going to hate me for writing about them. More publicity, it seems, only makes things tough on the venue. Last month the Seattle psychedelic thrash-rockers The Pharmacy played to a packed house there. Janelle Derven, a regular house concert attendee, had a great time at the show but noted it had a "different atmosphere" than concerts there in the past. "The people who lived there had to be more concerned about what was going on," Derven said. Later I heard through the grapevine that Shady Pines' residents weren't happy about being written up in Eugene Weekly. They have since not returned my messages.
It's early February, a week before the Pharmacy show, and I'm attending Shady Pines' Setting Sun and Quitzow show. I enter the venue through a door near the back of the house and come upon a patio area where people smoke cigarettes and hang out. It's 10:30 pm, and I learn from Nick Soracco — who is taking a $3 cover — that the two bands from New York have already finished playing and local glam-punk band The Ovulators are up next.
The crowd here is a bit harder to pin down; equal parts shnobby hipsters, punkheads, deadheads, clean-cut kids and the occasional dude over 40 (longtime Ovulators fans or creepy ex-rockers or both … tough to decide). These aren't out of control crazy mosh-pit kids; the audience is attentive and stands in a relaxed pose, heads bobbing to The Ovulators' pop-punk swagger. Egg crate cartons line the walls as sound buffers. Soracco tells me they hope to make enough proceeds from shows to install quality sound barriers to dampen the sound leaks and pacify the neighbors. After repeated requests from the audience, The Ovulators sing "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (they were the band for Lord Leebrick's production last year) and, soon, the show is over. It's midnight and time to quiet down.
I returned to Valhalla recently for further discussions with its residents. I knocked on the door repeatedly, but nobody answered except a barking dog. I noticed that a computer set up in the living room was turned on with the web browser open to Facebook's start page. Such is the online, viral nature of today's scene. Concert posters, long the staple of the underground scene, are now more valued for their memorabilia than their information. "I never really look at posters," Derven admits. "You kind of find out about it in other ways," like emails, text messages, social networking sites and good old word of mouth.
Despite the scene's online presence, shows are sometimes hard to track down. Often a MySpace bulletin or a Facebook event will get posted, but only "friends" of the poster will see it. Right now the best site I've found that aggregates shows in Eugene is www.playinghere.com, which lists Steve Poltz playing a "Fred Van Vactor House Concert" on March 27 and The Pharmacy playing Shady Pines again on May 27. "What would help Eugene was something to make up for the lack of community within the scene," Gotti says. "Some kind of production or organization." The scene doesn't seem quite ready to come out of its shell and embrace such an umbrella support group, but given the way it's flipped and shifted in the past 10 years, there's no telling where it will end up. The only certainty is that house concerts will continue to rock, in one form or another.