Forty kids, bobbing their heads together in a narrow North Oakland basement — it might sound like the awkward early hours of a college house party, but there isn’t any Avicii or “Turn Down For What” blaring over the speakers.
Instead, Onward Progress, an experimental post-hardcore band from Cranberry Township, rips through its loud combination of screamed vocals and melodic, finger-tapped guitar licks in front of “The Simpsons” cutouts along the basement’s back wall.
They’re playing at a house show — one of the many local, DIY, tight-knit concert events that are staged right in Pitt’s backyard. This particular show, which took place last Saturday at a house dubbed “Moron Mountain” on Morewood Avenue, featured five artists. They included nationally touring band Fluffer, three local bands and a poet from The Night Gallery in Lawrenceville.
The crowd, which primarily included college students from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, was polite and responsive to every shift in performance. They sat cross-legged on the floor and listened intently to Dan Hagendorf, a solo acoustic performer. In between sets, almost everyone moved outside to catch some air and congregate while the next band set up its gear.
The show on Saturday doubled as a birthday party for one of the Mountain’s residents, Jordan Sucher, a junior dramaturgy and decision science major at Carnegie Mellon. Even though Sucher’s birthday show was only the second at his house, he knew for a while that he would end up hosting live music in Pittsburgh.
“I always wanted to do shows, since before I even came to school, ’cause I went to DIY shows in New York that I loved,” Sucher said.
Pittsburgh is not likely to keep pace with the number of shows New York has to offer, yet there is strong enough demand to keep promoters busy.
Jackson Boytim, a 23-year-old Xavier graduate who booked Sucher’s birthday show, has been organizing house shows in Pittsburgh under the name Fine, I’ll Do It Booking for almost two years. He estimates that he’s booked more than 50 local shows in that time. According to Boytim, booking the artists is only part of the job. Getting the word out is just as important for a successful show.
“You gotta use a variety of social media, you gotta tell your friends — you have to yell at the bands to tell their friends,” he said.
House shows have been a part of the hardcore-punk scene since the 1970s, and their history in Pittsburgh remains hazy and mostly undocumented. The community is as strong as it’s ever been in Pittsburgh, with a show almost every week. To regular showgoers, DIY music provides a low-cost, intimate alternative to the city’s big promoting companies.
There are several elements that have to come together to stage a house show, also known as a “basement show.” It generally requires a house with residents willing to host, a booker and a slate of bands. A community of regulars to fill up the house and pay back the costs of touring is also crucial.
A majority of house shows in Oakland are donation-based, with a suggested contribution usually ranging from $5-10, to support the costs associated with touring. The average number of attendees ranges from 20 to 25, but some of Boytim’s most successful shows have drawn in as many as 70 people.
“I try to get people to come in and pay money to see them so that band can have gas money,” Boytim said. “Maybe, if we’re all crazy lucky and a bunch of stuff goes right, they can have food money in addition to their gas money.”
A number of fairly high-profile artists have played in Oakland basements during the past couple years, including The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, The Hotelier and Modern Baseball. Even though each of those artists has been properly, or improperly, tagged as “emo” at some point, the house show circuit by no means restricts itself to any one genre — Moron Mountain’s next scheduled event is an avant-garde noise show on Oct. 25.
But once the booking and promotion are taken care of, Boytim ultimately focuses on fostering an accepting and welcoming environment when it’s time for the show.
“A thing I’ve [been] striving more towards is spaces where everyone can come and feel at least a modicum of safety and that they are able to express themselves,” Boytim said. “And to have representation for people who might not normally fit into a lot of the stuff that goes on — not just in Pittsburgh, but in music all around the place.”
No matter how accepting a performance space is, entering an unfamiliar home to watch or perform a show initially can be a slightly intimidating or uncomfortable situation. But, eventually, complete strangers spark conversation or approach the kid who’s standing alone at his first house show. For Chris Taylor, the bassist and vocalist in Onward Progress, the adjustment is worth it.
“At first, it starts off awkward cause you’re at someone’s house. You don’t really know whose house it is — you just kind of have to meet people on the fly,” Taylor said. “But that’s what kind of brings people together. You force yourself to do that — you’re in a stranger’s home. You’ve got to respect that. It’s just how people meet.”