The microphone drips with a foul mix of sweat and PBR as it teeters and jolts among a cacophony of cymbals. A crowd of drunken friends scream along with their favorite songs and beat each other to the point of fresh pink bruises. The air is tight and hot as the teens suck down volumes of secondhand smoke. Cigarette butts burn arms and ears, a friend is hooking up with the merch girl out back and the band is slowly inching backward to avoid physically intertwining with the mob. The bands play into the night, curfew is broken and everyone whispers a prayer that mom won’t smell the dirty basement remnants that reek through their clothes.
The peak of house shows came at a time when I was still watching Fraggle Rock and wearing something resembling floral bloomers, but the Champaign-Urbana folks who survived the brawls and raging garage shows have one thing in common — no, not something they picked up from the merch girl. They have a passion for what live music used to mean and the lengths they would go to just to get their fix.
“Everyone is on the same level at a house show,” explains Roy Ewing of New Ruins. “It doesn’t have the same barrier from the crowd as other shows do.”
Ewing once played with Braid at a girl’s 16th birthday party in her room. It was a time when bands played just to play, and had a hell of a time doing it. There’s a certain level of camaraderie at basement and garage shows that doesn’t translate well to an established venue. “You could get more lippy at house shows,” Ewing explains. “You didn’t have to worry about bullshit like money; you just played.”
Matt Lunsford, co-owner of Polyvinyl Records, remembers traveling from Danville to see house shows in C-U. “I remember going to the Braid house on Springfield,” he says. “They had a lot of that stuff going on in Champaign-Urbana.” House shows were the culmination of weeks of record hunting and reading fanzines to get the scoop on local artists. Gas prices allowed touring bands to snake into the area and spend the night playing to a rowdy swarm of strangers.
“I remember a New York band that came into Olney to play a house show,” explains Caleb Means of New Ruins. “We set up a Wiffleball game that was East Coast versus Midwest. You just can’t do that stuff anymore.”
A decade has passed from the nights of shoving mattresses against the windows to keep the explosive noise from the neighbors, but a second wind could be in the works. Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach and Crimpshrine’s Aaron Cometbus formed a band called Thorns of Life that has, until very recently, strictly played house shows in Brooklyn. I’m crossing my fingers that the trend will trickle down to C-U. Throw on your Jets to Brazil sweatshirt and brace yourself for the resurrection.