Can Alternative Venues Jump-Start the Local Music Scene?

The day after the Fourth of July could have been a glimpse of Houston's musical future. New York symphonic-metal lunatic Andrew W.K. and Austin instrumental techno-rockers the Octopus Project were scheduled to headline a party at the Keene Street Warehouse next to the railyards just north of Buffalo Bayou, an all-day affair about a dozen local bands were scheduled to play as well.

Sadly, it was not to be. First Andrew W.K. canceled due to a misunderstanding with his management, and it rapidly became obvious that Keene Street, which suffered a fire shortly after last December's We Are the Hollow Man art show/party there, was in no condition to host such an event. Then a torrential downpour came on July 4, which completely swamped the largely roofless venue. The show was moved to Notsuoh downtown, and the day wasn't a total bust — about 130 people showed up, according to co-promoter Eric Solomon of I Heart U ­Productions.

More important, though, people were excited about the show, a quality in short supply in the local music scene these days. As John Nova Lomax pointed out in his "Skipping Town" cover story for last week's Press, bars and nightclubs are often less than ideal environments for live music, and the idea of watching the "same old band in the same old bar" is rapidly growing stale. Last week, Noise happened to be at Under the Volcano three nights in a row (I know, it happens) — Monday and Tuesday hanging out with friends, and Wednesday to watch Austin banjo prodigy Dustin Welch. Monday and Tuesday were packed; Wednesday...wasn't.

It's hard to say whether people will avoid a bar outright if they know there's going to be music there, but it's entirely possible (many doubtless do). Using warehouses and other nontraditional venues for shows, however, seems to be an obvious avenue out of the city's present musical doldrums.

But, of course, it's important to do them right. Noise called Houston DJ Ceeplus Bad Knives, who has years of experience throwing and performing at warehouse parties, for some pointers. (I also tried to reach perhaps the kingpin of local warehouse parties, Kelly of Scooby Doo Crew — who also happens to own the Keene Street Warehouse — but was unable to do so.)

Warehouse parties and alternative venues have a lot to offer that bars and nightclubs can't. Most parties don't charge cover, instead requesting a small donation. Drinks are dirt cheap. There are no age restrictions or 2 a.m. curfew, so these events can and do often stretch well into the wee hours (as long as the booze holds out, usually). And because the venues are usually in isolated industrial areas — less so than before, though, due to the continuing encroachment of lofts and condominiums into areas like the Warehouse District east of downtown — noise complaints are virtually nonexistent.

No bar-sales quota to meet means promoters are free to book whomever they want without worrying about the draw, and in turn the events often garner a much more diverse crowd than a club show that might only attract one particular scene. But because advertising is generally confined to flyers, postings on social-network Web sites like MySpace and Facebook and old-fashioned word of mouth, people who show up also generally tend to know (or at least know of) each other, which also helps cut down on overcrowding. Sometimes they get paid, but performers are often happy to play for free, for drinks or just the chance to play somewhere ­different.

"Most bands and DJs like to play warehouse parties because of that freedom," Ceeplus says. "The vibe is completely different from a club where there's tons of rules. It's more of a relaxed environment where people can congregate and be social."

The warehouse-party scene is hardly new, stretching back to musical gatherings at hippie communes in the '60s, New York loft parties in the disco era and the giant Chicago and Detroit raves in the '80s and early '90s, where DJs like Derrick May and Frankie Knuckles spun for thousands. Ceeplus remembers going to warehouse events in Houston as early as the mid-'80s, but notes the days of people hauling sound systems into abandoned warehouses have long since passed. Today's warehouse parties, he says, are "glorified house parties," where, when they're not hosting a couple hundred people and a few bands or DJs, the venues are someone's residence.

Although crowds that show up to warehouse-type events tend to be better behaved than they might be in a nightclub or bar — they are usually in somebody's home, after all — Ceeplus says that security is still paramount and recommends hiring off-duty police officers or constables. Tops on the to-do list is preventing underage drinking, something of which Ceeplus says the hosts of the parties he plays or attends are well aware.

"Every one of the warehouses I've thrown a party at or even been to, the people who live there, they're pretty savvy. They know they could get in trouble if a 16-year-old shows up with his friends and brings some illegal beer in. They're pretty strict."

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