While out in the world the other night, I got an invite to see a couple local bands play in someone’s basement downtown. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but after I received a text message that read, “Tons of chicks!” it was on. Upon my arrival, I realized that by “chicks,” my friend’s text had meant to say “my dad.” I was a little upset but I had a case of Hamm’s beer to make up for it.
I made my way down the most dizzyingly steep staircase of all time into what felt like a music video from 1996. The basement was carpeted in orange shag and a band called Babelshack was cramped in a corner. Made up of mostly College of Santa Fe students and singer Barnaby Hazen of Taos, the band had definite Nirvana and Pixies influences. Hazen sang passionately and, from time to time, broke out into gritty shouts that harkened back to early ’90s grunge.
Next onstage was Two Ton Strap, a kind of alt.country/punk band from Dixon. The Strap, as I shall call it from now on, began its set with a rousing, sped-up, punked-out version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and invited a fellow partygoer to perform vocals. Getting the crowd involved was a great plan, as suddenly everyone felt closer. The Strap reminded me a bit of Social Distortion but more countrified. Plus, it had some totally punk-rock dude jamming on the banjo. Sold.
A few nights later, I found myself at yet another house show, this time put on by The Process, which is basically a show put on by a guy who goes by the name Red Cell and has bands play in his living room. I showed up a little late and missed the first act but got there just in time for Chicago’s Pillars and Tongues, a three-piece band that consists of drums, violin and upright bass. The trio was clearly versed in drone and mantra, as its set began with a chant I was sure was in some other language, but was later informed by singer/drummer Mark Trecka was not.
“When you’re chanting or repeating the same words a lot, it starts to become psychedelic,” he said.
I found myself hypnotized by the beauty of Pillars and Tongues’ songs, and loved the three-part vocal harmonies. It was rare to see a drummer as the main focus with strings on rhythm duty, but it worked well. It was almost like soundtrack music rooted in poet-mysticism and experimental jazz.
Up last was Bandera, a five-piece throwback mix of Americana, folk and bluegrass. Front man Cole Wilson clearly knows his old-time music, as the only thing missing from the sound was ancient record hisses and pops. Singer Ali Sanders harmonized perfectly in a Carter Family-esque fashion, and Michael Lawless played the mandolin like he was David Grisman or something.
House shows are usually pretty amazing experiences. Perhaps it’s because the bands that play them could care less about money and would much rather melt faces and blow minds. Or maybe it’s the intimate nature of hanging in someone’s basement. Whatever it is, I salute those who keep our independent music scene thriving by opening their homes to bands and music lovers alike.
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