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.