Bringing Down the Basement Walls: Rock ‘n Roll underground returns to Hyde Park

You could immediately tell she wasn’t from the area: she looked too old to be a student, orange-red hair flowing down her back, and dressed like she’d just hopped off the back of a Harley to hit up the next in a long line of Saturday night dive bars. She hands a plate of chocolaty pastries to one of the guys from Hello Blue, one of the three bands that had trekked out to Hyde Park to play a free show in the basement of a University of Chicago student’s apartment building. They vaguely know the kid whose living room they’re busy trudging their equipment into; they’d talked a couple of times through email, and apparently that was enough to get them to come in from Minneapolis to play with their Texan buddies Cartright and Texans-turned-Hyde Parkers Death by Bear (formerly known as Meroe).

But if anyone’s surprised by the venue, they’ve cloaked it pretty damn convincingly. The two bands that have arrived–Cartright was playing another gig in Chicago and would show up later on–get right to work, storing their equipment and getting everything set up. Even the middle-aged groupie seems to have seen her fair share of dilapidated basements; she’s all smiles as she makes herself comfortable with the bands. “I made brownies!” she exclaims as someone takes the plate from her hands. “But they’re not special brownies, though.” Nevertheless, the guys are excited just the same–and besides, there’d be enough greenery floating around the rest of the night as is.

As it turns out, the only person unabashedly surprised by the notion of random bands from out-of-state playing in some unknown student’s basement is me. The handful of other students attending have all seen this kind of thing before; apparently east bum-fuck Kansas and Ohio have vibrant local music scenes, but all small-town northwest Connecticut can claim for itself are obnoxious cheerleaders and spoiled Abercrombie and Fitch poster boys (but I digress).

Word on the street claims that impromptu basement concerts used to be pretty common here in Hyde Park too–at least until now-defunct proprietor K&G got wind of them and sealed up all their basements in the late 90s. Apparently building owners (not to mention unsuspecting tenants) don’t always share the excitement of the underground bands and their small-but-devoted groups of followers. When asked about the owner of the building, Margaret Inglosolunbe–the student who’d organized the event–went shrieking down the hall, slamming the door to the basement and exclaiming excitedly how the owner didn’t know the concert was going on and how the goal of the night was to keep it that way. Early on, a sense of dread pervaded the audience as fears of a potential police break-up swirled about. Every once in a while, a torrent of angry banging could be heard from above, and at one point a group of students attempted to leave, but were convinced to stay after Inglosolunbe reassured them that the inhabitants of the building had been informed of the concert beforehand and had given their approval. Whether or not this was true, who knows; the audience settled down, the bands started playing, and the show went off without a hitch.

Death by Bear was the first band to take the “stage”–although in this case, the word “corner” might be more appropriate. The show was supposed to start about forty-five minutes before, but if they’d gone on as scheduled, there wouldn’t have been any audience to perform to. As the band presented their own batch of epic Explosions in the Sky-esque Texan post-rock–performed impressively with just a guitar and drums–the audience steadily grew, as both students and hardcore devotees made their way into the basement. And despite Hello Blue’s best efforts to drive off listeners with their generic alt-schlock twin guitars and miserable whine-core vocals, a good number of people stayed through the close of Cartright’s performance: complete with a group of ten or twenty fans singing along drunkenly with the lead singer as he haggardly wailed about, decked out in a top hat, wife-beater, and black suspenders; his scraggly beard swayed side to side as the two other guitarists–heads bobbing and long hair whipping ferociously like a group of bedraggled metalheads-turned-boxcar hoppers–tore through one bombastic folk hoedown after another, with an encore thrown in for good measure. It was one in the morning, and the stale air stunk of sweat, booze, and a perpetually-refilled pipe that kept circulating its way through the crowd.

In other words, the night had been a complete success.