A tattooed man with a beard hauls an amp through the basement door. Outside, smokers break off into rings to discuss the band that played before. Drunken comments on the performance float up from the crowds with the smoke from their cigarettes.
Inside, the next band starts setting up and tuning. Loud guitar twangs, short bass riffs and seemingly random drum beats ooze out of their instruments. It’s almost time for their set.
The set lasts roughly a half hour. The music fits with the current indie trend: fuzzed out to the max and rockin’. The kids up front bop around excitedly before playfully smashing into each other. In the back, bodies smush together in the packed room like – forgive the cliché – sardines in a can. We’re all getting to know each other tonight, whether we want to or not.
The draw of house shows is very hard to explain to a person who doesn’t already attend them. The way I see it, there really are two types of people in this world: those who actively like and seek out music and those who don’t. House shows are, obviously, for the former.
“They’re just like those apartment parties, but instead of bumping and grinding to an iPod people are standing and watching bands play music,” laughs Chris, a house show booker in Harrisonburg.
The thing about house shows is that the people who attend them want more out of their night than just drinking and dancing. They want to connect with the music they hear on a personal level. They want to see it happening. They want a relationship with their tunes.
Bookers are the unsung heroes of house shows, serving as liaisons between the bands and their audience. They’re the ones who put everything together, and, more often than not, are the ones who host the shows. But how do house shows actually happen?
“A band will have my contact information, and they’ll email me, and ask for a certain date. And then I make sure it’s all good with my house mates,” said Chris. “And then I book local bands to play with the touring band. I’ll then promote it with a Facebook event and a flier.”
Chris explains that, how he knows it, you book your friends’ bands, then your friends’ bands go on tour. They then meet other bands, who they then talk to about playing shows in Harrisonburg. Those bands receive Chris’ contact information, and then will email him about setting up a show. “It sounds stupid,” said Chris, “but after a certain point, you have a pretty big list – a pretty big network – so you don’t have to seek out bands anymore.”
For bands, house shows are a great way to fill in gaps during tours. Harrisonburg lies in between Philly and Richmond – two pretty prominent music cities on the east coast – so a lot of the house show traffic comes from bands having an off night when traveling between the two.
Reid of the Richmond bands Houdan the Mystic and Way, Shape or Form recently toured and played a house show in Harrisonburg. He explains that while bands usually draw more money from playing in venues, house shows provide for a certain atmosphere that venues simply cannot. “House shows are people that are willing to have strangers over, loud music from touring bands they’ve never met, beer spillage, and everything that comes with the scene,” says Reid. There’s a community feeling to it, because the people who throw the shows and the bands who play must have a mutual respect for each other and the space.
Though most of the time, the space is seriously disheveled. Show houses tend to be dingy, dirty, littered with empty beer cans and whiskey bottles, and covered in graffiti. Living in one takes courage and patience – a lot of patience – and the understanding that you can’t do everything you want to with your space. “[My housemate] and I tried to do some gardening the other week and had a long serious discussion on ‘Where can we put this so it won’t get stepped on, and how do we keep people from pissing on it?’” says Josh, who has been living in show houses for the past three years. “Cleaning your house seems like an exercise in futility, because you know the spent beer cans will just replenish themselves in a few days,” he adds.
Living in a house show house is not for everyone. Actually, it’s for hardly anyone. The living space is never clean, filled with random people most weekends, and usually gets destroyed by drunken miscreants. But there are benefits. “All of the people who I have lived with in the last three years have been incredibly chill and supportive of a the excellent DIY scene in this town. The level of housemate drama under our roof stays at a constant minimum due to our mutual understanding of where we live,” says Josh. “Also, on the less flattering side of things, my rent is cheap and the house is huge.”
House shows are, without a doubt, for a certain breed of human. They’re for people who don’t mind getting sweaty, who are cool with BYOB parties, and who genuinely love live music. They’re for people who are willing to sacrifice their space to the music gods, and who ask for nothing in return. They’re for bands that want to play even when they have no venue to go to. They’re for the weirdos, the freaks, the hipsters, the punks with back patches. They can be for you, too, but only if you want.