The End of the City's Best House Show Venue
11:15 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13.
It is hot in the living room of 611 Florida. Really hot. I've got a can of beer in my hand, and only moments ago it was nice and cold; very soon it will be lukewarm. I've got to wipe the sweat off my forehead every few minutes. More than 15 people are packed into the room that would feel crowded with half that number. A small oscillating fan that would maybe provide a bit of relief to a single person in his cubicle swivels slowly, almost mocking the assembled by simply re-circulating the hot and heavy air. From my spot in the living room doorway I can't even really see what's going on in the adjacent dining-room-turned-performance-space. But I can certainly hear it.
Connecticut-based skronk-rock band Hat City Intuitive is winding its way through an explosive instrumental jam. All I can see is one band member, on his knees manipulating some noise from a laptop. The neck of a guitar keeps popping in and out of view.
And I don't even have the worst vantage point. Another handful of people are scrunched together in the narrow hallway. A couple of them stand in the other doorway to the dining room, giving them a good view of the performance. The rest just stand with their backs against a wall, content to hear and not see. Another three people are standing on the staircase, leaning over the railing to try to get a view of what's going on. And this doesn't even account for the other 30 people congregated on the front porch, kitchen or backyard.
It's the last night at 611 Florida and a big crowd has come to pay its respects. For the past five years this cramped rowhouse, just a few blocks away from the 9:30 club, DC9, Velvet Lounge and the rest of the bustling U Street scene, has been the best place in town for getting up-close-and-personal with the most under-the-radar and experimental of musicians in (or coming through) town. The noisy, freeform improvisation of Hat City Intuitive is close to the norm for what you could usually expect to hear here, but the final show lineup represents the diversity of sounds that resident/booker Scott Verrastro brought in over the years. On before HCI was Love or Perish, a New York band that played a tight set of snarling punk rock. Later, it would be time for minor 1960's finger-picking folk icon Max Ochs and Verrastro's improv noise group, Kohoutek.
A few months ago, Verrastro's landlord told him he and his housemates had 90 days to leave and their lease wouldn't be renewed, and that marked the end of the city's best house show venue. The final blowout was the last of 611's annual Free Folk Phantasmagory shows, a 13-band, nearly 12-hour show that served as a perfect sendoff for the house. Verrastro, who also was a full-time booker for the Velvet Lounge, is off to Philadelphia, where he'll work at Johnny Brenda's, a newer, bigger, cleaner club. Plus, he won't be in a position where his house will have to double as a venue. But here's the thing -- that's actually a disappointment to him.
"I am definitely going to miss having my house as a performance space," he said. "Even though I had to clean up a mess at the end of the night, and the occasional thing got stolen or broken, 99% of the people who came were incredibly respectful. There really isn't a more intimate live music experience than seeing a band or musician play five feet from you, or even less. It creates an artist/audience relationship nearly impossible to cultivate in an actual club."
He's got that right. People often talk about seeing a show at an "intimate" venue like the 9:30 club or Black Cat, but those venues cannot compare to a place like 611. There's no backstage; there's no stage at all. The performers are hanging out just like everyone else. "These events were more like laid-back get-togethers or parties," Verrastro said. Many people treat concerts as social outings, but it's hard to be too laid-back when you've got to pay ever-increasing admission prices, another $5 (at least) for every drink and are basically hanging out in places trying to get to buy as many of those expensive drinks as possible. That's simply a nightlife reality, and it's not like even the Velvet Lounge was immune from $5 Red Stripe epidemic. But it never cost more than $5 for a show at 611, and if you didn't have any cash to contribute it's not like you'd get kicked out. It was never about the money.
It was the comfort factor -- even with the cramped quarters and humid air -- at 611 that made it a special place to see shows. Now granted, only a very small percentage of people would feel comfortable there. Put most people in a cramped rowhouse with loud, bizarre music and a bunch of people who look like they could be, I dunno, Motorhead roadies, and they'd run for the hills. But if you were an underground music obsessive, this was a place where you could feel at home and have conversations about music minutae and feel good about it. At this final show, topics included good songs on bad Grateful Dead albums, the reemergence of indie label Siltbreeze, the best era of Stereolab and plenty of noise band discussions. The cramped quarters made it almost impossible not to strike up a conversation with people, whether you knew them or not.
I didn't love every band I saw at 611. Sometimes you can only take so much formless noise. But more often than not I was pleasantly surprised. And you could never doubt the artistic devotion of the acts playing in that tiny living room. If you didn't really care about what you were doing, there's no way you'd be playing for a dozen or so people with no promise of any payment. And if you didn't like what you were hearing, you could always head out front or back and find something interesting to talk about. And for all of those reasons, 611 will be missed, unlike when many clubs shutter and nobody even remembers they were there a few weeks later. But at least the neighbors will be happy, right?
"My neighbors never once complained during a show," Verrastro said. "They have been very cool about all of this. One of them even loves most of what emanates through the walls. He's always asking us to keep 'jamming that Hendrix music!'"
While the end of 611 Florida is unfortunate, it does not -- and should not -- signal the decline of the area's house-show scene. "It is crucial that people continue doing house shows and events at alternative spaces because the atmosphere at most of the clubs in DC has become incredibly stale and exploitative," Verrastro said. "It seems these clubs are doing their best to take away the fun and spontaneity of art. House shows have always been great to diminish the role commodity has in music, though ironically, house shows are often far more financially better than playing a club."
With that, the torch is passed to other underground venues like the Lighthouse, Girl Cave and, most interestingly, Kansas House, the former leader of the D.C. area house show scene, now back in business after an extended hiatus.
Posted by: LonnieBeale | September 26, 2008 8:41 PM | Report abuse
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