From A Basement Near You, DIY Music In Western Massachusetts
What do the musical acts The Pixies, Staind, and Taj Mahal have in common? They all had their start in western Massachusetts.
Since at least the 1950s, Pioneer Valley venues have been a frequent destination for nationally renowned acts.
But there’s even more going on beneath the surface — literally. In basements throughout the Pioneer Valley, the underground music scene thrives.
Touring band Glued found its way from St. Louis, Missouri, to a house venue in Northampton, Massachusetts, on a Saturday just before the start of spring.
As Glued sound-checked in the basement, the lyrics of their song “Used To It” punched through into the kitchen.
Out of their five tours, this is the second time Glued has passed through western Massachusetts. The post-punk four-piece was playing a mix of venues on this tour, but bassist Johnny Wu Gabbert said he actually enjoys playing in a basement rather than on a stage.
“They just feel more intimate,” Gabbert said. “Whenever we play on stages, it feels strange to hover above the audience, and we like to be on the same level. And it sounds weird playing on the stage through monitors. It just sounds better coming through our own amps.”
Tour isn’t cheap, especially for bands that are just starting out. Above-ground venues will sometimes offer free drinks or food to a touring band, or maybe a cut of the cover charge at the door. Others simply offer “exposure.”
At house shows, it’s a little different.
On this night, one organizer squeezed into the throng of people chatting between acts. Holding up a giant silver stew pot, he shouted, in a fake British accent, “Alright, everyone! If you could spare a donation? For the touring band! You got a donation?”
A small queue formed as people dug out their wallets to toss in a few bills.
House show audiences are largely made up of local musicians who understand the financial burden of being on the road. It’s common for people to give $5 or $10, or purchase band merch like T-shirts or vinyl records.
Chelsi Webster, the drummer and singer for Glued, said she’s comfortable with the haul they get from house shows.
“If nothing else, we're breaking even,” Webster said. “And as long as we can get from one place to another, I'd say that's all that really matters. But we tend to get a lot of support in smaller spaces.”
Glued’s guitarist and vocalist Sean Ballard pointed out that the band makes enough to get a fancy hotel room here and there, so “maybe we're doing a little bit better than breaking even, because we don't need that stuff. That's a luxury. But we've got some good Jacuzzi time this morning.”
And the support isn’t just about money.
Local bands who shared the night’s bill also shared their gear. The house venue provided a PA system for all acts to use, and Northampton band Dirt Devil borrowed an amp from the opening act.
A sense of community sets the DIY (short for “do it yourself”) scene apart. While bands shuffled their equipment between sets, the crowd— mostly friends, and friends of friends — enjoyed each other’s company upstairs. Some took a smoke break on the porch. Others chatted in the kitchen. Someone picked an impromptu tune on a ukulele they found on the living room couch.
In a room full of 20-somethings, there are almost always a handful of older folks, like Gary Dolgoff. I approached him while we were waiting for Dirt Devil to start playing.
“It’s a cool place, a basement,” Dolgoff said, “You’re a regular here?”
I replied, “Yeah, you could say that.”
I’m in a local band and we’ve played this basement a time or two. From personal experience, I can tell you another notable trait of house shows: they can be a bit... legally tenuous.
That’s why this show’s organizer chose to be anonymous. In addition to hosting, he was also debuting his new musical project, Deep Red. I butted in during their sound check to ask him about other challenges of hosting underground music.
One big one: guests are almost never on time.
“We’ve been trying to just force them to miss some music, so they catch on to the early schedule, you know?” he said.
In dense neighborhoods, when neighbors are close by, earlier end times are always better. Some house venues have been shut down by police because of too-frequent noise complaints.
The vulnerability of the DIY scene makes it a kind of insular place. You have to know somebody to get in. Or, like the show flyers say, in lieu of an address, “Ask a punk.”