Haters gonna hate, but Houston's alternative-venue culture is thriving.
One night last summer, I stood sweating in the corner of a furniture-vacant room, hovering behind the drummer of Comatose and Half-Retarded.I was trying to film the punk band's midnight set at The Ghetto Blaster, a house-show venue off Elgin. My camcorder lens kept fogging from the heat 100 young bodies (and at least one old one) generated in the house's smallish living room. The kids moshed to and fro during the band's raucous set, as everything moved in unison and smelled like hot beer and body funk.
And it was righteous.
In Houston, house shows barrel in any night of the week in beloved spaces like Houston House of Creeps, The Poor Man's Art Palace, Jenner House and DownTogether House. Whether electric or acoustic, many of those shows exhibit the curled-lip, fuck-it-all sneer of punk rock.
"I mean, as far as house shows go, they are probably the only shows that feel like a punk show," says local promoter Mike Schoolcraft, who ran the now-departed Ghetto Blaster and today puts on shows under the Actualize It banner. He also did events at Pisshaus, the former Montrose-area house that lived up to its name and was mercifully demolished a couple of years ago.
"I can't stand venues with stages, an amazing-sounding PA and a high cover," he says. "I've always enjoyed a very small space with as many bodies packed into it as possible, with the band playing in a tiny corner on a shitty PA. It means a whole lot more freedom for the kids and for the bands.
"If you're too drunk, you can crash on the floor or whatever," Schoolcraft continues. "The community at house shows takes very good care of each other."
Micah Jackson and Derrick Broze are leaders of the Houston Free Thinkers group and have hosted house shows at their Third Ward home, most recently Day 2 of the group's free seasonal music fest For the Community. Day 1 was at The Compound, another house-show venue.
The house-show environment can translate into an audience eager for more than just music.
"Music is good in advancing the message because it moves people, and we work to move people to action," says Jackson, who promotes shows under the name Visionary Noise. "Music brings people together, and through their donations at shows, people lend their energy to advancing the various freedom-based solutions that we work to assist. So if they can enjoy their favorite bands and support Food Not Bombs, Organic Farming, Veterans Against the Wars or any of the beneficiaries of the shows, we find that makes a more meaningful experience for them."
I was at the recent For the Community event, its sixth installment and the 45th show Visionary Noise has promoted overall. An estimated 600 others came to the two-story house to watch bands and relive bits of that show at the Ghetto Blaster, but instead of being crammed into a corner, I was pressed against a bookshelf. At least I could scan titles by Nietzsche and Marx while listening to the eardrum-pounding, soul-lifting music.
"When it was raining the second day, we decided to move the festival to our house, primarily from concern for the sound equipment and safety of the performers and sound crew," Jackson says. "We moved 14 amazing acts through our living room."
And even when the music ends at a Houston house show, The Ponderosa frequently has another one ready to begin. The Warehouse District venue has hosted more than 200after-hours shows in five years at its 100-year-old haunted building, according to resident and music promoter Steve Ruiz.
"Most bands love feeling the energy of the crowd right in front of them," he says. No fewer than three people live in The Ponderosa at any given time, not including "touring bands or people just sleeping it off on our couches," adds Ruiz.
The venue has hosted a zombie-themed wedding, EDM DJ sets and No Power Fest, an anarcho-punk event drawing acts from across the Southwest. It may be a great place to take in a show (and a friendly place to sleep it off), but The Ponderosa was nearly lost to Houston when someone recently tossed a Molotov cocktail onto its front porch.
"The firebomb — the less said the better," seethes Ruiz. "Even before that, the house got broken into and we were robbed. A friend helped me put things in perspective when he told me, 'You are not really a success until people actively try and make you fail.'"
Ruiz says the good far outweighs the bad and chalks up these recent problems to "that one asshole," ever a thorn in the side of house-show promoters.
"There can be 200 people enjoying every aspect of being a human, but that one asshole can just ruin everything for everyone," he sighs. "It can make you question why you even do what you do and makes everyone else think, 'Oh, that is that place with that one asshole.'"
Schoolcraft says these venues seem to be growing. Some owe a lot to Southmore House, a long-gone venue that once hosted crust-punk bands like Dissent, Rats In the Attic and Humanicide. Today venues like The Jenner and DownTogether host a lot of acoustic folk-punk bands from all over, which keeps noise complaints down.
"The people that came to [Pisshaus] were never disrespectful, but the neighborhood fucking hated us, especially the people that moved into the condos right across the street," Schoolcraft recalls. "They were the reason we eventually moved. No one appreciates good music at late hours of the night anymore."
"House shows are the best because they are a place where an artist can perform completely uninhibited," Ruiz says. "There have been times when I've seen an artist have to turn it down or just stop the show at bars and venues. That just makes me think, what's the point of even having them perform?"
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