Living Room Licks

Fifty twenty-somethings crowded into Two Pines, a dark living room in South Minneapolis, on a sweltering Sunday night, flowing into any space not filled by six musicians and their guitars, mandolins, and banjos. The singer, clad in drooping denim overalls, strummed a few chords of a Mazzy Star song and chuckled. “What does this song remind y’all of?” he asked in a gravelly, whiskey-soaked baritone. “When Napster was free!” called a girl standing on a couch and clutching a beer. “Right now!” someone hollered, “The best night of my life!” The singer laughed and proceeded to hammer away on his guitar, jumping up and down as the crowd packed in around him.

Great music does live here, as a certain local radio station proclaims. It’s just not always where you might expect it. The punks call them basement shows. Classical and folk musicians prefer “house concerts.” Whatever the phrase, house shows, once an avenue for aural experimentation, have become trendy alternative venues for new bands, strange bands, underage music lovers, and anyone who doesn’t want to pay for a five-dollar cover and four-dollar beers.

House shows, of course, are nothing new. Typically they have been havens for musicians scorned by mainstream audiences. Ernst Krenek, the famous composer who lived in St. Paul during World War II, teamed up with players from the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) to introduce atonal works in homes across the city. In the 1970s, jazz artists like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman played lofts in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Shortly after, punk’s DIY attitude turned basements nationwide into instant venues.

Those shows, however, were exclusive and unpublicized; in other words, they occurred during the pre-MySpace era. Now, anyone with a basement or living room or even spare bedroom can promote the space to thousands of bands and potential audience members with a few keystrokes. While there aren’t solid figures on the number of house venues—they’re ephemeral, after all—they’ve proliferated in recent years. Some achieved fame, like the now-closed Bremen House in Milwaukee that hosted indie darlings like The Faint and The Rapture and emo rockers Jimmy Eat World. Others, like the Metric House in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, just hosted shows until the cops were called one too many times.

There are at least a dozen active house venues in the Twin Cities, including two just blocks from each other on Minneapolis’s Lyndale Avenue South. At the Two Pines house—run by Andrew Jansen, an amiable folk musician in his twenties, and his roommates—shows are acoustic and free. They used to be scheduled a few times a week with as many as six bands a night. Then Jansen realized they were testing neighbors’ patience and scaled back to a few each month. Down the street, the Pocketknife hosts punk shows every week or so. The two places, like most, promote modestly (mostly through MySpace) and draw dedicated crowds, mostly friends and neighbors.

There’s also Castle Greyskull (yes, named after the evil fortress from He-Man) elsewhere in south Minneapolis, a venue that tends toward “spazzy electronic weird shit that makes you want to puke rainbows while you dance,” said Max Clark, who lives there. They haven’t had issues with neighbors, he claimed, except once when an especially ebullient music fan raced around the block drunk and naked, prompting a call to the police, who showed up to find several other naked revelers.

For some bands, houses are their favorite venue: they’re intimate and all-ages, and most have no trouble getting dozens of people out any night of the week. And they’re the only place to hear music that commercial venues won’t touch—like at Two Pines earlier this summer, where a guy in a ragged T-shirt banged away on a contraption of cooking pans and other metal objects, screaming unintelligible lyrics. (He received raucous applause.)

The people who run these neighborhood clubs say they want to promote musical diversity and give bands more options. “We aren’t at war with the bars or coffee shops,” said Jansen. “It’s a place for friends and for people that love each other to get together and celebrate friendship and social issues. It’s a home.” His comments seem to put twenty-first century house shows on the level of the free-love collectives of the Haight-Ashbury era, but he’s got a point: While attendees may celebrate brown-bagged bottles more than berate the status quo, they also meet their neighbors, as well as possible bandmates, friends, and dates.

The jury’s out on whether house shows affect the bar-and-coffeehouse circuit, but, according to a June survey in the national trade mag Atlas Plugged, most promoters and owners are happy to have them. When bands that start out in basements advance to club stages, they tend to bring a crowd with them. And as long as there’s local music, there will be local house venues.

It follows, too, that as long as there are house venues there will be neighbors to overhear the goings-on. To wit, that recent Two Pines party ended promptly at 12:30 a.m. after a stern-faced policewoman arrived for the third time that night, following a neighbor’s complaints. One attendee muttered something unprintable about cops as he stomped out, and a girl with him socked his shoulder. “Come on,” she said. “They gave us six hours. I bet they came the first time for the show.”