Leaving the I.Am.We Collective at sundown on a Monday, having just seen a touring band play a President's Day matinee gig, is a weird sensation. As streams of office drones commute from cubicle jobs in Houston and Sugar Land toward their two-car garages, you've got a beer-buzz and a ringing in your ears from a little spastic art rock/no-wave trio from North Carolina that just played in someone's living room.
Despite its fancy name, the so-called "collective" is really just a typical two-story ranch house in a secluded neighborhood in the bottomlands near the Brazos River just outside of Richmond. It is home to Teri and Rich Bailey, local punk/hardcore concert promoters, and their three young children, whose toys and playground equipment fill their backyard.
The living room, on the other hand, is crammed with guitars and a full drum set belonging to North Carolina punk/experimental trio Calabi Yau. To honor the neighborhood's tranquility, the two guitarists toned down both the volume and distortion of their guitars, while the drummer played the entire set with a bed-sheet muffling his kit.
Rich, a bearded, heavyset guy in his early thirties, has just started hosting house shows here, though he is a veteran of many more in his native Charlotte, North Carolina.
"I always liked the way they blurred the line between band and audience," he said before the band's set. He was in the kitchen, stirring a great vat of spaghetti he shared with the band. "I liked getting spit in my hair."
Rich is a musician who has also worked as a stagehand at Warehouse Live and other clubs. He says the economic realities of the music business disillusioned him.
"House shows are just about the music, not about the money or how many records you can sell," he says. "There's more of a humanistic relationship on this level."
Long a staple of the singer-songwriter and jam band scenes, house concerts like the Baileys' have likewise been a part of the punk landscape since before Henry Rollins swilled his first espresso.
And while they are still a small part of the overall live music landscape, today some observers see them as an increasingly prominent piece of the puzzle. As gas prices soar and the music market fragments into smaller and smaller niches, many bands are finding it harder to get out on the road and stay out. For their part, clubs are having to charge more and more to stay afloat, and they are passing high costs down to the fans. These realities have conspired to spark a boom in alternative venues. Today, some estimate that as many as 600 homes coast to coast are more or less regularly hosting shows.
There are numerous advantages house shows have over club gigs, for bands, fans and promoters alike. Since they are not official venues, private homes have lower overhead — they don't have to worry about the multitude of codes and licenses real venues have to deal with, nor staff salaries. Thus the shows are cheaper all the way around. They generally don't charge people to come out, although donations are often encouraged. And few take the gamble of illegally selling booze — people almost always bring their own.
Bands get to interact more with their fans, a place to spend the night, and domestic comforts. "There's a semblance of home at these shows, and a lot of bands that have been on the road a long time really like that," says Rich. "We have a shower head they can spray in their butt and a trampoline they can jump around on."
Rich also likes it that his whole family can take in the show. (Two of his kids took in Calabi Yau from the couch; his youngest watched from his crib in the balcony overhanging the "stage.")
"Music should be passed down in families," Rich says. "It's harder to do in clubs. The first time I saw a merch girl change my son's diaper, it was weird."
Of course, not everyone is wild about house shows. It hasn't happened in the Baileys' case, but neighbors have been known to gripe about noise or traffic-clogged streets. And some club owners also resent the competition. They see the lower overhead as an unfair fight, and complain that the shows water down the draw for everybody. They also fret about the codes — what if a fire should break out in the middle of a packed house show? Clubs have fire codes for a reason.
And yet not even club owners are universally opposed to house shows. Far from it. The music industry Web site Atlas Plugged polled hundreds of promoters, club owners and band bookers and asked them what impact, if any, house shows had on their businesses. The answers were surprising. While a few whined, most saw them in a much more positive light.
"[House shows make] the entire scene thrive, and you can't expect people to want to be at clubs every night," wrote a Massachusetts club owner. "Personally, most of the reason I'm involved in the industry is that I like people, and would say of all the shows I've seen — the best were always in houses or basements."
"Kids that go to House shows come to see the same bands at our venue in 2-5 years when they are old enough," added a club owner from Minnesota. "Bands build their live shows by playing houses."
Paul Oveisi, of Momo's in Austin, said simply that "it brings more attention to live music."
"We have no expectations for how much we will draw here," said Rich. "You might be the only person who will show up, or we might have as many as 30. That's why everything's free. Charging money makes you expect things. We just do this for the love of music, to show that there are people out there who care more about music than money."
Throw some signs up, Bitch!
Wouldn't it be cool if there were historical markers scattered around town that took note of momentous events in local music lore?
Here's some places I think we should get the state to erect some markers.
1. 11410 Hempstead Road. Today's El Planeta Rojo Nite Club was once the Esquire Club, where in 1959 then-Houstonian Willie Nelson publicly unveiled such songs as "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "I Gotta Get Drunk," "Night Life," "Family Bible" and "Mr. Record Man."
2. 2809 Erastus. Now the educational building annex to Charity Baptist Church, this building was once the home of Duke-Peacock records. Bobby Blue Bland, Gatemouth Brown, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, James Booker, Roy Head and Little Junior Parker were all based here.
3. Corner of West Dallas and I-45. Jelly Roll Morton once lived about a hundred yards north of here in a house that likely stood where I-45 is now. While there is a historical marker memorializing Freedmen's Town, it does not mention the jazz patriarch.
4. 4500 Spencer Highway, Pasadena. Site of the original Gilley's of Urban Cowboy fame. The club burned down long ago, and the property now belongs to the Pasadena Independent School District through a tax lien.
5. 3717 Crane (Silver Slipper) and 3101 Collingsworth (Continental Zydeco Ballroom). At these two clubs, zydeco was nurtured and codified into what it is today. Lightnin' Hopkins used to jam with Clifton Chenier at the Silver Slipper, and the Continental was for decades the city's zydeco mother church and the Saturday-night focal point for the Frenchtown neighborhood.
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6. Approximately 1210 Richmond. This parking lot was once the site of Sand Mountain Coffeehouse, where Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, K.T. Oslin and Janis Joplin all got their starts.
7. 2310 Elgin. The Eldorado Ballroom, which still stands here, was the city's prime blues/jazz/R&B venue in the 1960s.
8. Unknown Address. Somewhere in Houston, in 1949, Fifth Ward guitarist-singer Goree Carter and His Hepcats recorded "Rock Awhile," a proto-Chuck Berry-style song later claimed by New York Times music critic Robert Palmer to have been the first rock and roll record. "Rock Awhile" was made for Solomon Kahal's Freedom label, but right now, I don't know where it was recorded.