|The Shower Beers, Sat. Feb. 7, 2015, Pug's Live, Tallahassee, FL|
In America on any given night hundreds of bands are occupying dank dark dirty spaces. There are echelons of music venues, and from places where bands are most widely seen to where they are seen the least it goes something like this: televised events, including Grammy-type awards shows and festivals; sports stadium shows, of the Rolling Stones / U2 / Bruce Springsteen sort; untelevised national and regional festivals like Coachella or South by Southwest; large theatres, like Atlanta's Fox Theatre where I saw Beck, and other mainstream venues like Hard Rock Cafe or the House of Blues; hotels or conference rooms for business conferences or weddings or something; street festivals; local bars/clubs/restaurants that make most of their money from food and drinks and favor cover bands or extremely Adult Contemporary Top 40 kind of stuff; local bars/clubs that focus their business efforts on being a music venue and feature regionally touring bands and local bands; dank dark dirty spaces; open mics at coffee shops and the like; and house shows.
It gets harder to pin down the size of the audience at the lower ends of the spectrum. I've been to house shows that had 100+ people and I've been to dank dark dirty spaces that have had 5. Of all the types of venues, the one with the most variability is, I think, the dank dark dirty space. Not all houses are the same, but the ones that host bands are typically inhabited by a coterie of slovenly college students or transient types. A festival's typically a festival, and a stadium's a stadium. But these d^3 venues can be in pretty much any space that has at least some breathable amount of oxygen in the air and maybe some kind of electrical outlets that work. I've been to d^3 shows in: the storage room of an art gallery; the hollow concrete shell of what used to be a CD Warehouse; the basement level of a Barnacle Bills restaurant; an actual warehouse; the upstairs recreation room of a church; and a United States Junior Chamber building (JCs/Jaycees).
Though all of the ddd venues are completely different, they typically share some core characteristics (outside of the three descriptors already contained in their echelon's name, i.e., dank dark dirty). They are cramped spaces that are usually reserved for other activities or purposes. Their equipment setup ranges from "nothing" to "a couple of PAs" and, if luck is in the air (along with the slight amount of oxygen needed to sustain human life), maybe there is a person to help the band plug things in or turn some knobs on an ancient mixer. There is no discernible elevated area that could even remotely be considered a stage, or else if there is it is so tiny that 50+% of the band has to stand off of the "stage" during the performance. The only drinks in sight are the cheapest available watered down beers, or, again if luck is in the air (w/ oxygen), those smallest of plastic cups filled with wells (the cheapest of paint-thinneresque liquors). There is sometimes a person around who can tell you when the music might start (and who will always be wrong by +/- 30 minutes) and who might take money from you as a cover charge, and who definitely doesn't know anything about comp drinks or food for the band. There's the unshakeable sense that something is fundamentally wrong in this space — the feng shui is so off the scales that it feels like the stale cigarette-smoke air is teaming up with the stained furniture, the rotting wood floors and support beams, and the workers' / regular attendees' lackadaisical desperation to suck some of the electrons out of your cells and sort of fuse a part of you with the space forever.
The last time I went to a d^3 was last week and the place was in Atlanta. It was an old house that is now serving as a cultural arts center, and the way to get to the venue is to: show up when it says the music will start (9 pm is what their website said), park a block away and walk since there was no discernible parking area (it turns out there was a parking area behind the house, but it was not visible from the main street), wander around the dark area around the house in the dark on some gravel that's dark in the darkness, run into a couple of guys smoking cigarettes who turn out to be in one of the regionally touring bands playing that night, ask them about how to get inside the venue and receive polite blank expressions from them in return, wander around in the dark, hear from some other guys on the dark gravel somewhere that the normal entrance is locked right now, wander, try a door on the side of the house, wander, hesitate, find another door at the top of a ramp, open the door to be met by super bright white indoor lighting and a mini hallway and a confused looking female sitting at a desk with a laptop, stand in the doorway and ask down the hallway (like almost yelling) if this is where we come inside / come inside for what? she asks / for music? / oh are you in the bands playing? / no but these guys outside are / oh ok let me check I guess, dumbfoundedly follow her through the arts center that has colorful/demonic/other paintings on the walls and a group of people auditioning actors for a play, follow her down some shaky wooden steps into a dank dark dirty space, realize (at the exact same moment that the laptop female realizes) that no one else is down there, follow her back up into the play auditions and paintings, wait as she calls someone, wait, hang out for 30+ minutes listening to people audition for a play, see the arriving person who can tell you when the music might start and who might take money from you as a cover charge, hear this person say to the laptop female that he totally forgot there was a show tonight, ask him when the music will start and then leave to get earplugs because you forgot to bring some with you, and miss seeing the first band in the earplug finding-and-buying process because that person who forgot there was a show tonight was +/- 30 minutes wrong with respect to when the music would start.
That's how you get to the venue.
The main band that night was called Dead Balloons. They were the guys smoking out front. They are a threepiece from Birmingham, AL, and they played their tuckuses off. The drummer could play the type of fast/crazy that approaches Greg Saunier/Deerhoof-type levels ("approaches" being key; G.S. is his own galaxy of fast/crazy drumming and the Dead Balloons drummer was just a star shooting by that galaxy kind of getting sucked in in the same way that the d^3 space sucks out your soul) on a very small set (1 mid tom, 1 floor tom, 1 ride, snare/bass/hihat). At one point he did that thing where he was ripping sixteenth notes across the ride and hihat at the same time (I don't really know how to describe this phenomenon) and I was just mesmerized by it. The bassist was playing unreasonably complicated and fast lines and but landing them in this weird groove that was kind of external to the drummer but integrated into the band, not that that made any sense.
It didn't make any sense.
And the guitarist/singer was blasting out a hazy reverby and only slightly overdriven guitar sound with some crazy high riffs sometimes that were Vampire Weekend-ish, but also some heavy rhythm work that was just straight-up great, but also at one point he doubled a bassline that was just hellaciously complicated and all over the neck but he was singing at the same time. It wasn't something that was like superhuman Herculean, but it was impressive in the sense that he took the time to do that and most people don't. Like that is not a thing that most people do. Like who does that? And his singing was great and definitely on-point.
And it was all crazy. Crazy good. What is this band doing in a d^3? A handful of 20-somethings standing stock-still in the audience sipping PBRs and Miller Lite 40 ozs. A room that simultaneously bombards listeners with a bunch of soundwaves bouncing off the walls, creating a boomy mix and yet swallowing up the sounds at the same time. (The PAs were taller than anyone in the band and neither of the amps were mic'd or going into the PA mix, and yet the vocals were only just barely noticeable, with or without earplugs.)
I went up to the guitarist/singer afterwards and shook his hand and told him it was great and asked if they had any merch for sale. He asked the drummer, and he (the drummer) said that he (drummer) hadn't brought any CDs but they had shirts, so he should check (the drummer speaking to the guitarist/singer, as in the guitarist/singer should go out to the van and root around). So after a few minutes the guitarist/singer comes back and says they didn't bring anything with them this time but they could mail me a shirt if I paid shipping and handling, so I should just look them up on Facebook. Oh, like I could pay them through paypal or something, I ask. He looks back at me with a polite blankness in his eyes and says, I don't really know.