Live From The Basement

Saturday night I saw Blitzen Trapper play at an all-ages club off of Division Street in Portland. The venue is called The Artistery. As far as I can tell, it's basically a punk house replete with the ticket takers reclining in cozy thrift store chairs and a few shabby couches to sit on if you need a breather from the basement. (The more OCD side of myself immediately thought 'scabies', but I'm sure the cleaning at this house is A+). Cities like Austin and Cleveland seem to have the all ages mixed with alcohol-for-those-over-21 thing down. But in Portland, you're either in a juice and bagel-serving venue with a bad sound system or in a smoky bar. The few exceptions here—The Crystal Ballroom, The Aladdin Theatre, and The Roseland—cater to people of all ages and serve liquor, but their large sizes lack intimacy, and despite a few eager fans in the front, there is little sense of urgency. Never the less, I've seen amazing shows in any number of venues in Portland, from pristine hipster bars, to old burlesque theatres or dance halls turned rock show venues, to coffee and donut shops with only a vocal PA. But there is really nothing like a sweaty basement show to bring out that one dancer that nears concussion every time he perilously pogos towards the low ceiling, a group of people holding onto the teetering PA speaker for dear life, a fan that has nowhere else to go but on the stage itself, and a few bare light bulbs in lieu of colored gels and strobes. Not all bands benefit from the unruly, unplanned, and unadorned elements of a basement show. But many bands, and Blitzen Trapper is one of them, do.

For one, the fans and the band are forced to interact with very little to mediate the dynamic. Without a barrier, the relationship between intention and perception is blurred. The crowd is part of the music, literally interfering with the sounds, visuals, and sometimes with the players themselves. The people, the walls, the floors, become receptors—everything and everyone radiates the same song. This energy can certainly happen in large venues, in stadiums even, but in a basement show or small venue the atmosphere feels pressurized, always on the verge of collapsing into disarray.

I should add that despite my gleeful immersion into the music, the old lady part of me was worried about the lack of points of egress in the basement. I kept an eye on what looked like the only exit from the room in the event of a fire. I was four steps, no five steps, away. If I knocked over the girl with skinny jeans, a teal headband, and a Flashdance T-shirt, I would be out in no time. And this is why older people don't often go to basement or all-ages shows anymore. Because when you're worried about safety, it makes you feel, well, old.

But I'll go back to The Artistery again. It was worth it to see a band playing for what seemed like mostly friends; getting the sound right by tweaking a few knobs on the amps, the drums louder and deader than anything, new songs that were still revealing themselves even to the musicians, and volume that couldn't be denied.

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I remember a particularly loud, sweaty, and incredible Quasi show at the old old Meow Meow, upstairs of some building in SE, near where the Doug Fir now stands. I felt like I couldn't breathe... The vibration left resonating in my ears, sweat dripping off of me...it was worth it for that show. I'm not 100% sure I would feel the same way today. And that makes me feel old. In fact, I skipped the Low Dough Show they had a few months back because I had to get up early the next day. It's hard being an old lady.

Sent by Carmel | 1:29 PM | 2-26-2008

I usually enjoy reading your blog. However, today i am irritated that i missed this show and here you are rubbing it in my face. Thanks : P

There are no basements in New Orleans, but your post reminded me of Benny's. The music started around 11pm or midnight and ended around 5 am on weekends, 3 am on weeknights. There's no cover charge but a water bottle was passed around the room for contributions to the band, which was otherwise not paid. I miss that place. Somewhat of a tangent, sorry.

Sent by timmmmay | 1:46 PM | 2-26-2008

This made me think of a house party put on by a Toronto band, they had a handful of bands performing in their basement/practice-space. A tiny basement where I couldn't stand upright, it could fit (uncomfortably) about 40 people, but it was a lot of fun.

Sent by Adam | 1:47 PM | 2-26-2008

i went to an all ages show on saturday night too, a house show, to see some friends play. the wood floors were bouncing with all the people dancing and i learned the lyrics to many of the songs because everybody there seemed to know them and was singing them really loudly around me and practically right into my ears. it was fun. then i went outside to sit by the bonfire between bands and thought about whether or not i was too old to be there (i'm 33). i'd asked some friends of mine who go to shows, and who liked the bands that played that night and who've seen those same bands play loads of times at i guess what they would consider more legitimate venues, if they wanted to go to that show with me on saturday, and they turned me down saying that they felt too old to go there. so i don't know. i've been thinking about what they said and now i feel a little paranoid because i brought it up with a co-worker yesterday, like, "isn't what my friends said a stupid thing to say/think? no one is ever too old!" but instead of agreeing with me, my co-worker said, "well, maybe you are too old to go."

i'm surprised that blitzen trapper is playing basement shows. i thought they were probably only playing bigger venues.

Sent by anonymous | 2:08 PM | 2-26-2008

several times over the past few years when i've been at illegal venues or house shows i have noted the only exit and stayed close. i have also started grumbling when the show doesn't start until 11 or there are 5 bands, or in some cases when the show doesn't start until 11 AND there are 5 bands. i saw the magnetic fields the other night and it was seated and over by 11 - i thought, "this is my kind of show." sad thing is that i'm only 32!

Sent by Denise | 2:45 PM | 2-26-2008

The only way you can get a decent basement show in Roanoke, Virginia, is if you drive 40 miles to Blacksburg.

I've been to the Crystal Ballroom in Portland to see Wolf Parade. I understand the liquor laws are pretty harsh, but dividing the floor in half the way they do is weird. On one hand, if you want to get away from the toddlers and chill out you can go on the alcohol side. On the other hand, the only way you can get close to the band is if you're willing to get the crap kicked out of you in a circle pit. If I wanted to get a broken nose at a show I would have gone to see Lamb of God. Maybe this is the old man in me speaking. I'm only 26. That can't be good.

Sent by Nick L. | 2:50 PM | 2-26-2008

Now I am even more excited to be seeing Blitzen Trapper next week.
It has been a very long time since a good show has made its way through Dallas/Denton Texas.

Sent by Breanna D. | 3:09 PM | 2-26-2008

I went to house show not too long ago. There were like 200-300 people trying to get in moving in and out of the house. The bands had a large unkempt following so there was plenty of BO to go around and it was a struggle to get around it. At the end of night the band seemed surprised that they had that large of a following and if they had known would've tried playing in a bigger place. I probably wouldn't have had as much fun if that happened though.

Sent by Oli | 3:18 PM | 2-26-2008

This post made me remember when I was in high school and none of our bands were ever good enough to play larger venues. We played basements of all types (i.e. houses, churches, community centers, etc.), and an occasional open mic night at a local club. I lived about 45 minutes away from Kansas City, so bands would often visit from Lawrence and KC. The higher energy plus the forced crowd/band relationship was what made those smaller shows way more fun for me than the bigger clubs...not to mention the price tag.

What's funny about this Blitzen Trapper show, is that my spouse was actually there. We went to high school and college together in the midwest where you often times have to work to discover what's in your local music scene. And when you do, it's often on a small scale. While in college, my spouse befriended a girl from Portland who had missed many of the major musical milestones (excuse the alliteration) around her. When you're from Portland and you've missed out on the great movements in music that happened there, it sometimes takes help from someone who was geographically deprived of the same thing in order to break in. This weekend my wife took a trip to see her friend and catch the Blitzen Trapper show in order to show her what our experience was like, back when we weren't old enough to go to anything but a basement show. Her report back was that the show delivered on its assumed promise of intimacy and energy. Her only negative comment was the she and her friend felt 'old'.

So, back when we were the ones who were packing the basements in order to have concert experiences, none of us noticed that we were the same group of kids at every show. Now it's hard to find people in our age group who want to dance and mix with the youngsters in a basement when there's a perfectly good arena show with comfortable seats in a year or two. It seems like smaller venues should advertise future concerts as, "LOTS MORE FUN THAN YOU'D THINK, and PLENTY OF FIRE EXISTS" in order to diversify the crowd for a higher average fan age. The basement shows will never stop being unpredictable, unforgettable, and (in my opinion) better than any high ticket price/wear an alcohol bracelet/sit at tables/physically and emotionally separate from the band concerts that managers can book.

Sent by Marc | 3:45 PM | 2-26-2008

last time i saw kickball in portland, they didn't play on a stage, instead opting for the crowd to totally surround them. i got to stand next to the drummer (who happens to be incredible), and with the audience and music so blended, the show ended up being one of the best i've ever been to.

Sent by alex | 3:49 PM | 2-26-2008

As a park ranger, in Portland for the winter, safety stuff like you mention *should* be forefront; I grew up in S.F. and am giddy discovering this city and its nature/culture combo. Seeing w/ new eyes bears the risk of not having the 'red flag' antennae up like I should.

The Great White show that went "kaboom", five years ago last week, more than justifies your concern, to the tune of 96 fatalities. 'Old ladies' live longer for a reason.

Sent by Nick | 3:54 PM | 2-26-2008

Oh, Carrie, thank god I'm not the only one - I also find myself doing previously unthinkable things like wearing my running shoes to a show that's going to require a lot of standing. And then I remember that my parents complain if a venue doesn't have seats. Ouch.

BT is at Bottom of the HIll in SF this Friday - I may have to lace up those running shoes and hit it. Four steps from the fire exit, of course.

Sent by Rachel | 4:19 PM | 2-26-2008

I'm 31 now, and I have to REALLY want to see a band in order to brave an all-ages crowd... even a licensed/all-ages show.
What's up with kids sitting on the floor between bands? We never did that when I was underage... these kids today have no sense.

There used to be a venue called "Classic Studio" (or something to that effect) here in Toronto, in the basement of a pizza place called Classic Pizza. There was a big crack in the wall, and I can remember getting covered in the snow that was blowing in through the crack while watching a friend's band play there. I would never put up with that now!

Sent by Mike | 4:31 PM | 2-26-2008

oh man, i was going to go to that show, had been pumped up about it for a while, but then my girlfriend got sick. so i opted to stay home with her (rather that leave her and come back raving about how great the show was). i havent seen blitzen trapper in a long, long while. I'm decent friends with one of the eriks in the band, so ive seen them in some weird venues where there were hardly any people, but now with the hype of the new record, it would have been great to see them with a crowd that showed some energy. sometimes that can really make or break a show.

oh well, ill see them again. i hear they are playing holocene in april, which also a small place.

and i get to keep the "good girlfriend" title in the meanwhile.

Sent by brittany | 4:33 PM | 2-26-2008

I am 63 and don't think I am to old. If invited or interested, I go.

Sent by John | 4:36 PM | 2-26-2008

You should check out Brainstains (somewhere on N Lombard). When I played there, it was complete with a bonfire, an older gentleman checking out what the kids were up to and menagerie of sweaty, in-your-face rock music of tomorrow.

Sent by JJ Hellgate | 5:37 PM | 2-26-2008

The best concert I've ever experienced took place after midnight in a dilapidated elementary school gym whose ceiling threatened to rain asbestos-laden tiles at any given second. I prefer acoustics that contain a hint of danger.

[[A thousand and one thanks for introducing me to the Trapper! I'll be seeing them a few weeks & can only hope that the venue will be even the simulacrum of a sweat soaked deathtrap... minus the low clearance for the giraffes among us.]]

Sent by ZiaZia | 6:02 PM | 2-26-2008

In Milwaukee the scene pretty much only has basement shows. I'm not kidding.

Sent by nicolai | 6:55 PM | 2-26-2008

being a seventeen year old kid, basement shows are like, the greatest thing ever. i put one on whenever i get a chance (like last saturday night). and also, i'm lucky. r5 productions in philadelphia still books big bands in a church basement. i saw the loved ones there sunday night... oversold, stagedives, full crowd press to the stage, leaving me punching the monitors in a mixture of delight and discomfort. i don't want to go to a show and feel old, ever! but i have some time before i need to start worrying.

Sent by Joe Gallll | 7:20 PM | 2-26-2008

Hilarious...I went to a DIY show this weekend, deep in the Cleveland ghetto, housed in a former Chinese restaurant, and lining the walls of this tenement were various dumpster retrieved chairs and couches for sitting. Despite getting there an hour before the bands even showed up(!!)--quite DIY--there was no way in hell I was going to sit down! My 33 year old back hurt.

But it was thrilling to see that 'kids' are still throwing caution to the wind and doing shows like this.

We did house shows in Columbus in the early 90s and it has been the best music experience of my life. So with turning 33 a few months ago and feeling old, I go to as many shows as possible. I feel that they keep me young and attached to my youth while 'advancing' my tastes. I can't/don't feel like seeing every "good" band but enough bands I like show up, so I go see 'em.

I feel a little sorry to hear of other friends in 'cooler' towns who have more or less punched the clock on attending shows.

You wrote on an SK post, maybe 'all hands' or 'one beat' era about becoming a volunteer firefighter and how you [paraphrase] "...became hyper-aware of all fire exits in the venues you play..." Since then I scout out every exit wherever I go and I use hyper-aware whenever possible.

Sent by Jason M. | 9:29 PM | 2-26-2008

i once saw the thermals play in portland at a place called the foodhole. i walked right past it about 3 times, at least. no one had even heard of it. that was my first show in portland. it was fun, but kinda got overshadowed by the next two portland shows.

Sent by Lauren | 10:40 PM | 2-26-2008

Come on people, focus on the real issue: there are people out in the world who wear teal headbands and Flashdance shirts, and I fear they aren't doing it ironically.

Sent by Laura E. | 10:48 PM | 2-26-2008

Carrie, I was happy to see you bring up Portland's lack of small-to-medium all-ages venues. As you might be aware, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is currently considering changing its rules to rationalize the system by which venues are approved for all-ages shows, and which will consequently allow more venues to put them on. This change would not open bars up to people under 21, or require venues to open their shows to minors or anything radical like that - it would just make it possible for legitimate venues (and art spaces, theaters etc.) to hold shows, sell alcohol to adults, and still admit minors under a very stringent set of requirements that would prevent them from obtaining alcohol or being exposed to a drinking environment. This would bring Oregon's system more into line with those successfully used in other states.

Teens need more fun, exciting, positive things to do to alleviate the boredom that leads to dangerous behaviors, and making it more possible for them to participate in their local music communities - be it as musicians, fans, bookers, engineers, organizers or journalists - is of obvious and significant benefit to everyone.

More information about this issue and how to get involved and express your support for the rule changes to the OLCC can be found at

www.pdxpopnow.com/olcc

And, by the way, The Artistery is my absolute favorite venue in town because it straddles the gap between house show and official venue so well. Shows there feel great and sound surprisingly good. Two exits, incidentally!

As for Brainstains - a semi-official house show venue that another commenter mentioned - it actually had it's final 14-band blow-out show the very same night as the Blitzen Trapper/Starfucker show.

And, speaking of which, I hope you caught Starfucker at that show as well. He/They are really excellent and one of the best things going in Portland right now.

Sent by Cary Clarke | 4:54 AM | 2-27-2008

Basement shows are the best. Even when the band sucks, I still always have fun. Can't say that about arena rock shows.

Sent by Karissa | 10:35 AM | 2-27-2008

I hear you on the scabies! Years ago some friends of mine were so happy to score a free couch of some dude they didn't know. Soon after they were all itching like mad and had little burrows under their skin. SCABIES! Don't take free used couches.

Here in Chico I remember the Burro Room as fun place to see shows like the one you describe. It's long gone, but I rarely go to shows anymore either. Not enough fire exits :)

Sent by Dirk | 11:51 AM | 2-27-2008

I was at the show and was really into their last song, the tentative title track off the upcoming album. Had a Dylan vibe without sounding too imitative.

I recently spent four years in exile in SoCal, and being back in Portland, seeing a great show with friends and spotting you and Janet across the room, just made it so good to be home. I left feeling warm and fuzzy.

And if it's any consolation, my 28-year-old brain considered where the exits were, too.

Sent by Jeremy | 12:58 PM | 2-27-2008

Thanks for the nice, albeit somewhat underhanded comments about the venue! It might be worth pointing out that we are a legitimate commercial venue with a 200+ capacity, and a decent sound system to boot, so you've gotta admit it's a little bit more than a typical basement. The couches are top-notch too! That kidney-bean shaped one is a pricey number, our crown jewel.

Thanks Cary Clarke for the kind words, too. Maybe we should make a new tagline- "The Artistery: People named Carrie/Cary kind of like us!"

Again, thanks for the comments. Everyone! Come to to shows here! They are great!

Hi Luke. I put the link for your venue into in the post in hopes people would see it as a legit space, as I myself saw it. The fact that it is akin to a basement only makes it more special in my eyes, and makes for wonderful and intimate shows. Please forgive any comic embellishments. As I said in the post, I'll be back for sure! -CB

Sent by Luke Mahan | 2:27 PM | 2-27-2008

A few years ago I saw the Thermals at a coffee shop (Fresh Pot), Architecture in Helsinki in a vintage clothing store off of Alberta, and the Microphones at "Stone Henge," a similar venue to the Artistry in Eugene. Those were probably the best shows I have ever been too. I have since moved to our nation's capital, and the lack of venues, and lack of desire to get creative with existing venues, kills me. Can someone please bring something like the Artistry to DC? I'll help!

Sent by Melissa Cohen | 5:58 PM | 2-27-2008

I was surprised to see Nick L.'s comment about Blacksburg - I live there and book a lot of the house shows. Both of my bands pretty much only play basements, and that's definitely the way I prefer it.
Although something I had never thought of came up the other day - an acquaintance e-mailed me about a house show I had booked asking if it was always full of people drinking and smoking...he said he had been clean for a year and found it difficult to enjoy a show in such an environment. I felt bad because the nice thing about houses is they are always all-ages - but this guy is under 18 and still doesn't feel comfortable. It's too bad. This is definitely not the majority, though so I think basements are a great space for most people, and I've had the most fun of my life at such shows!!

Sent by Dominique | 6:50 PM | 2-27-2008

Starfucker are amazing! They just played up here in Anacortes and blew everyone away.

Places like the Artistery which provide safe and legal venues without a patronizing teen-center vibe are so important. People interested in starting their own all-ages spaces and/or getting involved in all-ages music advocacy should check out the All Ages Movement Project! allagesmovementproject.org!

Sent by Kevin Erickson | 9:57 PM | 3-1-2008

I love the Artistery. It is easily my favorite Portland venue. Thank god for all ages shows! This particular show was spectacular.

Sent by Amit | 6:00 PM | 3-5-2008

I really wanna check out New Bloods.

Sent by Marissa Dailey | 10:23 PM | 3-8-2008

how could I 4get to rant about this?! ughhh I hate all ages venues & shows!!...lol..no offense to you kids out there... but coming frm Austin that's one thing I thought totally blew about the NW. even tho Im so in love w/ the NW. Apparently I didnt know this was the deal just about everywhere. It just feels like Im at a junior high dance or sumthin. & there was a reason why I never went to that shit to begin with when I WAS in junior high. But I dont wanna bitch too much... kids wanna party too. but I can still say %$#! a beer garden! ok? LOL.

Sent by Marissa Dailey | 10:35 PM | 3-8-2008

The cleaning at the artistery is A+ all right. Big time.

Sent by Robbie | 7:48 PM | 3-12-2008

I'm 22 and have always kept escape routes memorized in my head at any basement show I've been to. If that makes me an old lady, then that's okay by me.

Sent by Jamie | 7:27 PM | 4-24-2008

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