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."

Generally, he adds, trouble with the authorities is pretty minimal. "If law enforcement does show up, typically they understand what's going on," he says. "They know it's someone's house, they know someone lives there. The owner or the person whose name is on the lease will come out and say, 'Hey, sorry,' and the officer will say, 'Turn it down a bit.' They'll only come out if it's too loud or the party spills out onto the right-of-way or a public street, and typically that doesn't happen."

The environment is key to the success of events like this. For one thing, most take place at venues that are also artists' studios, so the paintings and sculptures on display are a little nicer to look at than neon beer signs. Beyond that, the industrial surroundings and anything-goes atmosphere can create a surreal effect light-years away from a dimly-lit tavern or sterile listening room.

"When you're in a warehouse or art space like that, it puts you in a different world in a way," says Ceeplus, who says the wildly successful Starbucks Mixed Media series of bands and DJs he curates at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston creates a similar environment.

"We didn't think at first people were going to come out — it's the Museum of Fine Arts," he says. "But the feedback we've gotten is like, 'Oh, we love it — it's an alternative to the clubs. It's so great to be in a museum dancing and drinking and partying.' People are thirsty for something different in this city as a whole. I think that's why you see these events pop up."

Ceeplus sees a couple of ways for Houstonians to satisfy that thirst, and enterprising young bands and promoters should seriously consider both. First, he thinks they should broaden their horizons and start booking shows at places other than the handful that regularly host local independent bands (the Mink, Notsuoh, Boondocks, Walter's). Maybe Navigation Boulevard hardcore room the White Swan, he offers, or even an eastside Tejano bar or Third Ward beer joint. He's already talked to the owners of a few northside bars who are "starving" for business, and says they've expressed some interest.

"I think those kinds of places are cool," he says. "I eventually see people doing that. I intend to push that idea."

The other is actually already happening. Ceeplus points to the community that has sprung up around Bohemeo's, the eastside coffeehouse that displays local artwork and hosts live music and other cultural events at night. It reminds Ceeplus of similar venues he's seen in cities like Seattle and Austin.

"What they're doing out there for the Latino community and the arts is amazing," he says.

Ceeplus has similar hopes for the newly opened Caroline Collective in the Museum District and Super Happy Fun Land, which was forced to close its ­warehouse-like venue on Polk Street in the East End in February for not having the required city permits. (They're still working on it, reports owner Brian Arthur, and hope to reopen in the fall.) Before it closed, Super Happy was already practically an art space/warehouse. If they had just gone ahead and opened as that instead of as a live-music venue, Ceeplus laughs, they wouldn't be in their current ­predicament.

"Those kind of places are the future of the city," he says. "That's how the music scene is going to survive."

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray