by Jack Ramos
Undefinable smells, sticky floors, mysterious holes in the ceiling, and music so loud you’ll probably need hearing aids by the time you’re 30: all the hallmarks of a great basement show. While these experiences may not be appealing to the average fan of live entertainment, basement shows create an undeniable atmosphere of genuine appreciation for music. They are an integral part of any underground music scene and provide a viable pathway for local acts to make it out of the dungeons and onto the big stage.
As someone who frequents these mysterious and elusive musical gatherings, I’ve garnered a certain appreciation for the dingy and sometimes downright disgusting aesthetics that make basement shows the heart pumping, eardrum thumping events they are. It takes a special kind of person to offer up their living space to the riled masses of basement show fans. A certain level of inner zen is required to accept the chaos of a concert raging ten feet below your kitchen. However, along with this noble sacrifice, comes a certain level of mythology that gets associated with these spaces. Names emerge: “Jurassic Thunderdome,” “The Slab,” “SinkHole.” These names carry with them the memories of smashed guitars, heartfelt ballads, and sweaty moshes for all those brave enough to enter the world of basement shows. I mean, where else can you stand two feet from a singer screaming their heart out into a mic with so much distortion you wonder if they’re even speaking English?
While these experiences may be quintessential to my love for live music, I still hold room for critique of a basement show’s aesthetics. By aesthetic, I don’t mean the art hanging on the walls, because let’s be real, any art not bolted down will probably end up hanging in the dorm of an opportunistic underclassman. What I mean by aesthetics boils down to a few key elements. These elements separate watching the rowdiest band you’ve ever seen obliterate their set, from watching your uncle and his friends from college play Tom Petty covers at the family barbeque. First off, a successful basement show aesthetic ultimately hinges on the band. Now I know that may seem obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean the caliber or pure musical skill of the band. A good basement band must maintain the delicate balance of playing music well enough to be groovable, while also creating the high-energy environment that motivates people to want to punch holes in ceilings. This isn’t to say any old schmuck could get up with their Fender Squier and play Wonderwall loud enough to hear from Van Cortlandt and succeed. As I said, it’s a balance. Rush might have had the most technically skilled drummer of all time, but I’d like to see Neil Peart try to play in the center of a mosh pit located in an apartment on Bathgate.
A good basement show also needs a space that allows the band to interact with their densely packed and overheated audience. If you can’t communicate with the band that’s causing you to rethink your decision to give up the guitar when you were seven, then the energy ain’t quite right. Don’t misread me though, when I say communicate, I don’t mean complimenting the guitarist on the sweet seafoam paint job on their Fender Jazzmaster. I mean locking eyes with the singer and screaming every word to the clearly impromptu cover of Radiohead’s Creep they decided to play after hearing someone drunkenly yell it from the crowd. The audience should feel tied in with the band they’re seeing.
Finally, to truly succeed in creating the decrepit yet exhilarating energy that comes along with basement shows, there must be a certain mystic, magical “ingredient x.” Some call it a culture, some call it a vibe, whatever you call it, it’s the result of a reciprocal relationship that emerges between each and every person crammed into these subterranean concert caverns I’ve grown so fond of. Sure, every now and then someone might get bounced for throwing a hard elbow in the mosh, but these events are all love. It comes down to a primal sense of community that probably emerged when our primate ancestors were rocking out to gourd drums while the cave walls were being painted. Whatever it is, it’s what makes these events so one-of-a-kind and unforgettable. So go out and start your own basement show legacy. Trust me, it’s worth it. If you do decide to create a space worthy of thrashing, mashing, and jamming, sorry in advance if you can’t get me to leave.