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Why we need house shows

Protomartyr
Protomartyr
Tom Murphy

The house show used to be something you could count on in Denver with some regularity. But in the last two or three years, such things have dwindled, becoming virtually nonexistent. What makes going to these kinds of shows special in a way that can't be duplicated at a venue proper is that you really are entering someone's living space, which brings with it a special level of informality and intimacy.

Over the weekend, the house show lived in Denver, featuring local power-pop bands American Culture and Ned Garthe Explosion and touring post-punk-esque phenom Protomartyr. Though the latter has a great new record out on Hardly Art called Under Color of Official Right and has played shows with the likes of Pere Ubu and will perform in Europe at the same festival as Slowdive (a real treat for guitarist Greg Ahee who cites the shoegaze band as an influence), Protomartyr is traveling in a packed van and sleeping on floors and whatever is available in each town, turning down no good opportunities to play a show.

Outside the house (a relatively new host for shows), the conversation was light and the company was good -- it just felt like you were going to a place where friends, old and new, were coming together to be a part of something.

American Culture
American Culture
Tom Murphy

To get to the basement, you had to walk through the house. You ran into welcoming people. There weren't a lot of airs. On the way down the stairs there was a friendly sign telling you to watch your head. Padded water pipes and a double-padded ceiling and side walls to muffled the sound. Everywhere there were reminders that you were seeing something real and not sanitized.

The sound was on the raw side, but it worked -- the P.A. could push the vocals enough to compete with amps and drums. Guitarist Michael Stein didn't play with American Culture this night, and it was the final show featuring drummer Logan Corcoran, who is moving on to Portland, Oregon to play with a member of Akron//Family. Toward the end of the set, former Bad Weather California guitarist Tyler Ludwick, wearing a blond wig, stood in for Stein and brought his inimitable guitar wizardry to the proceedings. And for their part, Chris Adolf and Lucas Johannes brought their usual energy and passion in playing their Dinosaur Jr-esque power pop.

Ned Garthe Explosion
Ned Garthe Explosion
Tom Murphy

Protomartyr sounded like it had feasted on The Fall, Pere Ubu and '80s-era Chicago punk in its early stages, but now the band is playing a rhythm-driven, melodic noise-rock. Ahee's dual lead and rhythm guitar work was pulsed along by drummer Alex Leonard's asymmetrical style and bassist Scott Davidson's dub-like textures. Joe Casey was like a demented yet understated lounge singer.

Whether people were seeing Protomartyr for the first time or found their way to the house expressly for the band, there was remarkable enthusiasm in the crowd. Seeing such an honestly positive reaction to a band was heartening -- often crowds at big shows reserve their excitement for the familiar.

Ned Garthe Explosion
Ned Garthe Explosion
Tom Murphy

Even though a number of people had filtered out late night, Ned Garthe Explosion was in high spirits, laying into the music with the same level of energy as any other of its performances. The band's combination of humor and confrontation as well as a surprisingly vital amalgam of garage rock, power pop and psychedelia made it easy to rouse the crowd to dancing.

Post-show, there were plenty of people having substantive conversations. Members of Protomartyr gave people an account of what it is like to actually live and play music in Detroit as it is today. And it is that sort of mingling and talking with friends and sharing stories that keeps a community connected within a city and to like-minded types beyond.

Commercial venues are obviously still important. But underground and house shows are important, because they cultivate a local culture and its connections in a direct way that commercial enterprises often can't. The show was a snapshot of the very good end of the current state of the American musical underground. It's a vital part of the culture, because anyone can plug into it and find inspiration in it. And someday, these moments might be part of a bigger legend.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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