House shows do it for the love of music
I trekked down a gravel road in Mesilla, near Las Cruces. Navigating the backstreet past rundown trailers inhabited by rough-looking junkyard dogs, I did my best to avoid sliding into three-foot ditches on either side of the narrow dirt path. I was searching for a music venue known simply as The Farm.
The Farm is a large house, boarded up on one side, that takes its name from its location in the middle of Mesilla Valley farm country. The tenant, Tucker, rents the house from his grandparents and puts it to use as both a dwelling and occasional music venue.
The lineup for the evening was to be three one-man-band acts. When I finally arrived and figured out how to get in (I wasn’t sure if I was at the right place as there were no signs), I was met by more confusion. One act had arrived, two had canceled and few had shown up to witness the event. Someone assured me something would happen, but no one seemed to know what, exactly.
I settled onto one of many couches that had seen better days, directly underneath an enormous bug zapper, and waited for the promised show. For about 30 minutes I busied myself by swatting mosquitoes (apparently ones that had been exposed to gamma rays) and watched as people began to filter in.
I was able to pick out the only performer who had shown up, Chris Black, and joined him on another ratty couch. Black said he enjoys playing house shows because he never knows what to expect. He likes having the freedom to leave the stage and jump on couches, and, he said motioning to the small number of attendees, “Sometimes, like tonight, things are a little more intimate.”
The intimacy became more apparent as Black began setting up. The stage at the far end of the room was bypassed in favor of an area rug two feet in front of a row of couches. Black is normally a solo act, but Tucker and two of the would-be onlookers formed an impromptu backup band as an added surprise.
For the next hour Black held the modest crowd's attention with songs about lost love and life’s inevitable tragedies. Twentysomething girls listened with closed eyes as Black coaxed impossible sounds from an upright bass. Hard-looking young men were transformed into banjo fans when Black switched instruments. His songs informed young listeners that, soon enough, their lives would be filled with unbearable pain.
After the set, people joined Black on the floor for a jam session, picking up instruments that materialized from everywhere within reach. “Grab a guitar and experience Tucker’s midnight session,” a showgoer by the name of Jesse prompted me.
I told him I don’t play guitar but he persisted. “Experience something new," he said. "You never know, you might like it.”
I found Tucker in a makeshift office that was packed with more instruments and a collection of office chairs in the same condition as the couches.
Tucker explained that hosting shows in his house was a way to provide musicians with an alternative to the usual bars while exposing fans to a variety of music styles they might overlook. Echoing the folks outside his door, he said, “It’s all about the music and the art of music. Here you can pick up an instrument and participate.”
The Farm is happy to provide the musical entertainment, but it's strictly BYOB. Other D.I.Y. proprietors avoid the issue altogether by having a strict no-alcohol policy. House venues like Super Hausen and La Casa in Albuquerque kick out anyone who can’t abide by this rule.
Besides underage drinking, many other problems present themselves. Noise is an obvious issue. Tucker has had several noise complaints issued against him, but the police are mostly unconcerned. He describes their visits as a quick look around to make sure nothing serious is going on. “They never find anything; they know the drill.”
La Casa and Super Hausen have never had a problem with the police. CJ, Christine, Brian, Devon and Rachel, who collectively run La Casa and Super Hausen from two separate residences, describe their landlords as “really cool” and fully informed as to the scope of the events held in the houses.
Their reasons for offering up their living rooms and basements to bands are similar to Tucker's: “Providing a venue for smaller bands” while avoiding the “politics of the club scene.”
All those I spoke to shared similar complaints, as well. Keeping the booking straight and making sure the shows go off without a hitch ranked at the top of the list. Without a firm set of rules like one finds at a more traditional venue, details can be uncertain in the hours prior to a show. But, as Tucker points out, “The end result is great.”
All involved spoke of using house shows to introduce bands and music to a new fan base. However, a second visit to The Farm revealed a much larger crowd that contained all the people I'd seen at the previous show. It wasn't the picture of new music lovers experiencing something they had just discovered. It was more like a clique.
Chris, another Las Cruces do-it-yourself-er, admitted that the goal of house shows was often defeated by their nature. The Super Hausen/La Casa gang attributes this to a variety of reasons, one of which being “because it’s in a house, people don’t always feel comfortable just walking in, so you usually get the same people.” It is also difficult to publicize the events without attracting unwanted attention. Everyone I spoke with reminded me to keep their last names to myself.
Their methods aren’t for everybody, but their motives are good. The bands appear to do well. They move quite a bit of merchandise and sometimes leave with $100 or more from donations. The fans also benefit. Admission to shows is free (although donations are gratefully accepted), and most of the time guests are treated to a show they wouldn’t have seen elsewhere.
House show organizers may not have the perfect formula, but they do have an undeniable love for music and those who make it. Who else in this enormous industry is willing to put their necks out for the little guy?