Six Unforgettable Shows from Boston’s Music Underground in 2013

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Boston’s underground music momentum and soul seemed to shift over to my part of town—Jamaica Plain—following 2012’s swirling paranoia and depression over the Boston Police Department's crackdown on Allston house venues (only doing their job of filling the gap that exists amidst the dearth of local, legal incubator spaces for artists). At least it certainly felt that way to me.

House venues began to pop up all over JP in 2013. And while there were still vibrant house venues, and an odd half decent (though not always vibrant) legal venue in other parts of the city, JP began to feel (and still feels) like the best organic scene going in these parts.

It is off the beaten path where art is truly percolating—out of necessity, and a want for certain things that most Boston area venues do not offer: no age restriction, a decent ambience, low enough overhead so that artists get paid, a hassle-free experience. Off the beaten path, is where art is free to fall and stand up again, where it is free to at least momentarily find itself without much in the way of those ugly external pressures of life and the world getting in the way. It is off the beaten path where I find myself most comfortable and at ease. And I know that I am not alone in these feelings.

Below are a few underground shows that have stuck with me from this past year. It wouldn't feel right to include a bunch of shows organized by Boston Hassle, the non-profit arts organization through which I and several collaborators organize 100 or so yearly, but I couldn't help but include just one amongst the six amazing show experiences that I touch on below. As you might imagine from my preamble, many of them took place in JP.

So close to my house. That's where Bad Owws is. (Underground venues operate without city permits, so I’m not identifying the locations more exactly in order to protect their continued existence.) So on this beautiful mid-August night I stumbled over and made my way into the basement of the house where I was quickly swallowed up by a sea of pipes; the bowels of the place. To many the sounds I heard that night would make sense found in the proximity of bowels (this particular music would demand bowels of the agitated variety). Nick Neuburg, normally just one of the baddest drummers in town (Aykroyd, Candy Truck) kicked things off with a wild and rhythmic electronic journey of a set. It's always very exciting to stumble upon an unknown and enthralling side of an artist who you are already quite familiar with. I cannot recall why, but I missed the following set by the divine Angela Sawyer, proprietress of Weirdo Records. My loss.

Chris Cooper, of the ever incredible Fat Worm of Error, was up next and his was also a solo set. He had placed speakers all around the basement space, and so created a rare (certainly for a basement anyway) stereophonic listening experience. Different audience members sitting near different speakers thus essentially heard different sets on this evening. Cooper's sound creations existed somewhere at the crossroads of noise and a truly industrial environment overflowing with piles of buzzes and clicks. He moved back to the West Coast soon after this show and so the memory of this show becomes slightly bittersweet. Hopefully we'll all get a chance to see Fat Worm of Error ride again.

Closing out the night was a trio calling themselves Pre-Internationally Endowed, which consisted of Guerilla Toss members Simon Hanes (also of Tredici Bacci) and Arian Shafiee, and their teacher Anthony Coleman (an NYC free improv and avant-garde jazz stalwart who’s collaborated with the likes of John Zorn). With two guitars, an organ, and the odd human bleat these three took us a wild ride of sound that I finished watching through a hole in a half built wall.

Across Jamaica Plain toward Forest Hills there is a tremendous record store run by two very active members of Boston's underground music community. The place goes by Deep Thoughts, having been named for the collection of wonderfully weird surrealist one-liners by humorist Jack Handey. I came to this magic place on this evening of May 9 because I was already a fan of the drummer in the touring band, Chicago's Ben Billington, via his solo electronic project known as Quicksails.

On this night, Billington would be playing with his band called Moonrises. The wonderful and psychedelic Herbcraft of Portland, Maine, set the mood, and then Moonrises took to the non-stage. And soon I learned of the place that psychedelic music can travel to if not hemmed in by preexisting notions and when brought into existence by free-minded players of the appropriate dexterity and power. As a fan of psychedelic music in general, and knowing well the many pitfalls that exist in the genre, I was exhilarated. This music was alive in me as the waves of sound flowed through the room. An enchantress on the mic, Libby Ramer,  also manning her sinister organ. Wild men surrounding her, egging her on. Check out their 2013 album “Frozen Altars” (released by the awesome Captcha Records).

Once more in JP, on March 19, about halfway between where we started and Forest Hills there exists a place that some know as the House That CD-Rs Built.  This place has long been at the heart of Jamaica Plain's experimental and open-minded music community, standing squarely in the gaping void that is the epic dearth of quality music venues in this artistically vibrant part of Boston.

I can't really recall who played first and who last, so I'll just say that Form-A-Log (pictured at top) played first. Boasting members from Providence (Ren Scofield, who otherwise goes by the moniker of Container), Philadelphia (Noah Anthony) and Chattanooga (Rick Weaver) these guys set up a number of four-track machines and let flow the wonkiest back and forth cassette exchange that you could imagine. Some kind of musique concrète for wobbling and untwisting to.

Arkm Foam and Crowley Ladin closed it out (I think). Within these two powerful individuals there is much in the way of sound conjuring and beat twisting magic. At this time and in this place Centre Street in Jamaica Plain became the center of the universe as the lights came down and on opposite sides of the long basement each man set up, sending his twisting sounds across through the crowd to the other.

In late February, parkside in Jamaica Plain, I found myself for a show that instilled in me how exciting pop music is in Boston. Krill, Jesus Vio, and (the late and lamented) Cowboy Band, three Jamaica Plain pop-minded wonders filled JP Drive In for the evening for a packed crowd, just down the narrow stairs, and just beneath the kitchen. Home to one of the city’s most vibrant record & tape labels, this place is the kind of spot that has naturally developed its own particular scene.

Cowboy Band spliced, with incredible care and reverence, pre-50s cowboy songs with deadly, precise post-punk/no wave skronk. Right about this time I was in deep thrall with these guys. Next came Jesus Vio, one of a bad bunch of real mean dudes from Miami. There’s not been a crowd I’ve witnessed that has not fallen under the genuine and earnest charm of this man. And I love so many of his songs (see his band Free Pizza too). When you have Krill closing out a night you know you are at the right show. Is making kids go wild while your play your rarified hybrid jangle pop/indie rock (but much more just like they’re very own thing) a sure sign of awesomeness? The answer is of course yes.

Finally our Dan Shea Special Shows 2013 tour leaves the leafy confines of JP, arriving in that amazing food-filled, concrete place next to the Mass Pike, Allston! It was April 26 and 27 “Raw Meet 10, Day 1 and Day 2” at most certainly the longest running, and best curated of the Allston house venues of recent vintage, Sam Black Church (this place even survived and thrived through the Boston Police house shows massacre of 2012).

This particular event was put together by exploratory, underground sounds champion #1, Mark Johnson. So many incredible performances one on top of another. Boston’s Homeworld knocked me out with his noisy as hell dance music. Providence’s Mincemeat or Tenspeed manipulated his sounds through a pile of pedals creating a bubbling stew of weird groove. Providence’s Unicorn Hard On and her ever more infamous shards of noise spilled over beats. And then there were the noise-slathered, blood-splattered, and screwed beats of Johnson & Johnson’s born to raise hell Hunnies Bunnies. These events are life changing. You should try it.

In late August we at Boston Hassle brought Nova Scotia’s Crosss to town. They would play alongside stellar locals Funeral Cone over in the basement of Roggies in Cleveland Circle, one of Boston’s outer edges. Steep Leans opened with their great off kilter jangle rock. And so as not to be out down by them Funeral Cone, on next, covertly set up in the women’s bathroom. There they started their set, and got a few songs deep before some angry employees put the kybosh on that sweet move. That gang? Weird punk wonders, half Worcester people, half Boston people. Real dangerous mixture there. Once things settled down and everyone shared a beer, Halifax’s Crosss began to melt faces softly with their doom pop song. Heavy and sinister and still absolutely pop. I love this band.

Dan Shea, a longtime local music booker, is co-founder of the music and arts organization Boston Hassle and the art and events newspaper Boston Compass.

This article was originally published on December 27, 2013.

This program aired on December 27, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.