At a basement show, the artist is right there. Generally, there’s no stage, just people. A show like this can take some shuffling for the best view, because everyone is eye-level. “You almost feel like you’re a part of the show, which I think is different as compared to a show at a bigger venue… where this kind of remove from you and the artist,” says John Vettese, editor of XPN’s The Key.
The costs to basement show are generally low. At All Night Diner, a basement venue, a concert this past weekend with a four-band line-up was five bucks. According to an interview featured in the documentary short My Basement is a Shithole, which focuses on the scene in Philly, four to six bands on a bill is typical. All Night Diner wasn’t icky or smelly, as some house shows locations (as the documentary’s title suggests) can be. If the tenants are cool with it (and at All Night Diner, they were) guests can perambulate about, making it not just a basement show but a kitchen hangout sesh, a porch chillout with music down below.
“If you’re walking past a house where there’s music, [you can go] ‘Well, I can guess I can stop in there and see what’s going on,” says Evan Lescallette, who co-produced My Basement is a Shithole for class at Temple and has played many a cellar himself, “whereas, you can’t do that with a venue.”
The music venue hierarchy
Long considered a signature of West Philly’s musical culture, basement shows have also become a common concert option in the Riverwards, South Philly and other pockets in the city. Musicians and concertgoers say that if the neighborhood is attracting young artists, you can bet on basement show being there or working there.
“I’m two years out of school. I’ve noticed that when new classes come, it’s new blood, new bands, new houses pop up,” says Lescallette. Places will emerge “wherever the new kids are into it.”
Lescallette and Vettese both would compare a basement to the first step on the ladder. Consider the (legal) music venues out there. A smaller bar venue like Boot & Saddle holds 150 people. Vettese gives an example of what the climb could look like for an ascending band: Boot and Saddle 👉 The Foundry (capacity: 450) 👉 TLA (800) or Union Transfer (1,200) or the Trocadero (also 1,200) 👉 the Electric Factory or the Fillmore (both 2,500.) House shows are the unofficial level just beneath a Boot and Saddle-type place, where bands can have a more informal starting point. Vettese suspects that scene also blossomed to provide spaces that could welcome concertgoers under drinking age. The strictures placed on music venues that serve alcohol in Pennsylvania are notorious and often inspire promoters to leave the ensuing rigmarole behind altogether, and just make their shows 21 and over. Vettese’s instincts appear to be right on.
Punk scene OG Lenny “Crunch” Bandoch still has the cassette to what he calls the first Philly punk basement show ever— Jan. 15, 1983, featuring SoCal band Channel 3. Bandoch and his roommate Jeff Jenkins, then a DJ for Drexel’s WKDU, had been recording bands in their basement previously at 424 N 32nd Street in Mantua. (Anne Cecil, a Drexel professor and the Pop Culture Association’s punk chair, tells us that Jenkins and Bandoch’s venture is widely recognized as the first.) “Most of us were under 21 at the time,” says Bandoch, who was 21 and three months then. “It was still more fun if we could book an all-ages show… A lot of the bands wanted to play to the kids— that’s where the energy was. That’s who was buying the records.”
Casey Grabowski, who plays synths with the Morelings and has played basement shows with multiple bands over the course the last decade, says the appeal for musicians is also about good economic sense. Bands often invite their friends to help fill the crowd at bar shows, and these invited friends pay cover charges and bar tabs. “Your friends get really drunk, run the risk of getting the DUI or something, and they’ve spent $50 or $60 that night,” he says. “It winds up just being like a racket. We turn down a lot of bar shows… A band is lucky to get paid $100. And the band might’ve traveled far. A hundred bucks split five ways is $20. It’s stupid.”
“Why would I give this bar all this money, when me and my friends could just do this in our house?” he continues. “So why wouldn’t you be in more of a collective artspace?
With someone who may be able to give you a place to sleep, or who you can entrust with putting your record out?”
Why you’re less likely to hear hip hop in a basement
House shows have deep ties to the city’s punk community, often viewed as an extension of the subculture’s do-it-yourself ethos. In fact, DIY show and basement show are often used interchangeably, the former being the more encompassing term if the ingredients are the same, but it’s happening in a living room, or arts center, or a warehouse.
There’s a lot of conversation on what’s embraced under this umbrella more broadly. A common perception is that the DIY movement is maybe not solely a punk thing, but definitely an underground/alt rock thing. Vettese has a different perspective: “Another way of looking at it is the DIY scene in Philly that gets outside media coverage, like for instance Noisey writing about how Philadelphia has the best punk scene in America, they’re writing about the Philly punk/indie rock scene. Something that I’ve always said is that we have a very healthy Philly DIY hip hop scene that doesn’t get the same attention.”
Lissa Alicia, a freelance writer who has curated her own shows with hip hop artists, believes that DIY hip hop oftens needs to be more of a production. “I feel like hip hop in general is very ostentatious, bold and kind of braggadocious. The whole punk-style basement, dingy warehouse thing doesn’t work as well for hip hop.” Bars are actually more favored, she explains. Arts centers appear to be a common ground.
Lescallette says some musicians and promoters are planning mixed-genre shows to make things more diverse in more than one sense. “A lot of people in the scene… are pushing for more inclusive shows,” says Lescallette. “I think we’re going to see that more and more. More female-fronted bands. More people of color.”
How the All Night Diner honors tradition
At All Night Diner Saturday, New Jersey band Rita Fishbone surprised me. I had never heard them before. They were actually good. Next to me, other audience members murmured similar observations. Most of the basement looked bare, except for the back where the band was playing; fabric had been hung and Christmas lights swooped across the ceiling, a familiar set-up.
“It’s such a thriving scene in not official venues. I mean, these are people’s houses. They’re essentially house parties,” Vettese notes. Of course, venues do get shut down by police or nabbed by L&I. There’s a respected rule to not publish addresses; finding out where a location calls for asking people personally. “There’s a common theme of these events happening and being a kind of destination, like touring artists think of coming to Philly and playing a show in a basement… Something that Philly is known for is the fact that there’s this network of basements that are kind of always just skirting the authorities and whatnot. That lends a certain excitement to the shows. It also puts a certain lifespan on these spaces.”
The lines can blur between house party and concert, but Lescallette says the shows he’s attended that were shut down all leaned more heavily towards the party side.
All Night Diner opened in September. So far, the owner tells us, they haven’t had any problems with the law and the neighbors have been pretty chill about it.
There was a rock venue in the ’80s called the East Side Club at 13th and Chestnut, saw acts like Bad Brains, The Misfits and Black Flag. Being on 32nd St., Bandoch and Jenkins flipped it, and named their basement the West Side Club. Husker Du played there three times. Die Kreuzen, Mudhoney and Scream made stops too.
“Trying to convince a VFW or an American Legion Hall that we want to bring 200 kids into their ballroom and have punk rock bands play was not very acceptable,” he says. “Back then you didn’t have bands like Green Day who could get played on regular [airplay]. It was all basically underground. Some of these clubs and these halls didn’t want that element coming into their place.”
He says it took some time before other basement locations opened, two years maybe. The West Side Club lasted for three, then they moved on to the Community Education Center at 34th and Lancaster.
Bandoch thinks it’s “tremendous” that the new kids are keeping at. “Nobody showed them how to do it.” Bandoch loves that.