"events by and for big-brained people" since 1995



Author: Sarah Tomlinson, Globe Correspondent
Date: 04/15/2004
Page: 8
Section: Calendar

If you asked some average teenagers about their Saturday evening plans, church probably wouldn't top the list of expected replies. But one weekend night in March, about 40 slouchy teenagers in jeans and sneakers were at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square, surrounded by brightly colored children's artwork in an elegant, wood-paneled room. A band of young musicians was playing loud art-punk music at the crowd's center. Music wasn't the night's only draw: the chance to just hang out was key, particularly as almost all of the audience members were too young to get into clubs. Shows in churches and community centers have been an indie music rite of passage for years, as unknown and experimental bands who couldn't get traditional gigs went do-it-yourself.

This show, organized by local promoter Ben Sisto of Honeypump Production Co., is just the kind of uniquely flavored, often all-ages fun that happens when instigators and artists get the itch to entertain themselves and their friends. Boston is full of independent events, whether it was the rock music cruise Sisto organized in Boston Harbor last summer, an exhibit of toilet seats decorated by local artists that Darcy Scanlon is curating at the Paradise Lounge next month, or the noise music fest that Debbie Nicholson of Eximious Productions once held to celebrate winter solstice at O'Briens in Allston. The local do-it-yourself movement is clearly full of ideas, but it takes more than chutzpah to organize an event.

Rockin' revolution
The DIY tradition has grown into a movement and aesthetic in the underground music world, and more than a half-dozen local promoters regularly organize shows at offbeat spaces and mainstream clubs. They enjoy showcasing acts that are too far from the mainstream to land regular gigs, and they take pride in cutting out national entertainment conglomerates and clubs with high overhead. Less red tape and more thrift means lower ticket prices, with more of the money going to the bands. Organizers usually take only a small profit, or none at all.
Often bored with traditional rock shows, organizers try to book bands around a theme or to mix bands and writers together. Or even to transform the space into a fantastical wonderland, like the voodoo show Nicholson organized at the Berwick Research Institute, an art space in Roxbury, featuring the band Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs, red mood lighting, and cardboard cutouts of giant skulls and bones.
The magic that can happen when independent artists are brought together for a one-of-a-kind event is a huge part of what makes the hard work worth it for Aliza Shapiro of Truth Serum Productions, who produces indie rock shows and the monthly Glitter Switch: Drag/Karaoke. "I just need to know that if I put a show on, and I get to see the magic that happens onstage, I'm adding to the collective good," she said. "And it's making me happy, and I'm not sitting at home watching TV."

Party like it's DIY
One way to guarantee a fab party is to invite the whole city, and that's pretty much what promoters do when they get inspired to create a special night. DJ Vinny's monthly parties at the Milky Way Lounge in Jamaica Plain have celebrated everything from the B movie kitsch of director Russ Meyer to the sexy side of Halloween. Regular nights include a Friday mod dance party called The Pill, and Sisto's Dynasty night celebrates the arty side of dance music at the Milky Way.
While avoiding the coordination required to book live acts cuts down on the headaches, many nights such as Blackout Bar on Wednesday at the Paradise Lounge, which Sisto now promotes, often feature live music between DJ sets. Organizing a dance night means keeping the night fresh but also creating enough consistency so that people know what to expect.
"When you book DJs, you're booking editors," Sisto said. "You're booking people that you're expecting to play two hours of music, each, that might involve 60 songs that are all chopped up, so it's very hard to have an exact set idea of what you want that to be."
Whatever you decide the night should celebrate, it should be something that's not happening elsewhere. That's why DJ Nomadik (a.k.a. Marie Recupero) of SoulKore Productions started throwing old-school hip-hop parties at the House of Blues in Harvard Square (before it closed) and the Middle East in Cambridge and organized an open-mike night at the Milky Way every other Wednesday. "When I play hip-hop, I have to let people know it's not commercial hip-hop," she said. "It's different, and it's probably not going to sell out like a Ludacris show. But those who are looking for something different will come my way."
The night and its music should be accessible to enough people to make it more than just a party for one. Even Sisto, who has been a trailblazer in the DIY community, admits that he compromised on his own dance night to make sure everyone was having fun.
"Dynasty straight up started as an '80s night," he said. "And more and more, I've found that despite the fact that I love music from that era, maybe not everyone else does. I also love a lot of newer music and underground art stuff, so we just changed slogans to Dance Music for Creative People."

Art off the beaten path
As with independent music, many visual artists are trying to make a go of it outside mainstream galleries. Indie organizers are excited to put art into the public's view, often without the flash that goes along with the more established art world. "In the long run, really good art speaks for itself," said Patti Hudson, whose love of independent work led her to open Art Market gallery in Jamaica Plain.
The rock 'n' roll related shows in the Paradise Lounge and the Valentine's Day show that Carly Weaver curated at ZuZu! in Cambridge were wacky enough to draw people into seeing art without them even realizing it. "Just to say, `Oh, I have my paintings up' sometimes doesn't work, because most of the world doesn't care so much, and the attention span for artwork is three seconds," Weaver said. "You're best off having a theme and building up as much as you can around it. As sad as it is, unless you're Picasso or something, most of the time, you need a little more oomph."
Many of the tricks for drawing viewers who might be put off by a sophisticated gallery environment dovetail perfectly with the limited DIY budget. Xeroxed fliers and handbills are cheap and share the gritty rock aesthetic of the underground music scene. "It doesn't have to be some hoity-toity, snobby thing," Weaver said. "You want people to come and have fun, and not be intimidated just because it's an art show."
Another trick is to find unexpected nooks for art, such as coffee shops, libraries, stores, or even recording studios. New Alliance Audio in Fenway has had five shows in its lounge. Organizer Alvan Long, who runs the studio and is an artist, loves putting art in the path of the musicians. "We knew a lot of people would see it in that setting," Long said. "And it's all mainly musicians and people who are involved with the arts, too, so it seemed like a natural for it as another creative environment for the studio."

Riotous readings
Readings are great because they require very little equipment and performance space. For writers who aren't able to distribute their work in printed form, readings are a way to affect an audience and receive feedback.
Ren Jender founded her all-women Amazon Slam almost a decade ago because she wanted to create a supportive environment for female performance poets. The monthly events are now held at the Milky Way. Jender also has seen a hunger for events away from the club environment, which is often full of loud music and partying. "I think people are looking for different evenings out than just the same old, same old," she said. "It's more of a chance to talk to people than your usual bar event, which is like, the music's really loud, so you're not going to hear anything the person says to you."
Some performers aim to inject a bit of the raucous rock world into the more staid performance poetry and literary scene. "A slam should be in a dark, small bar," said J*me, a.k.a. James Caroline, a performance poet who directed The Musician and the Muse, a music-inspired performance poetry experience. "[That's] where people are having fun and people are loosened up."

How to do it yourself
To make any self-produced event successful, the organizers must trust that their idea is so good that it has to happen, even if no one else has thought of it before and people think they're crazy at first. The more offbeat the idea the better, as long as the organizers believe in it. "The first really important thing is to just have complete faith in the fact that, if you want to do something, there are probably other people who are into the same scene, because no one is, creatively, completely isolated," said Sisto.
When it comes to recruiting co-conspirators, there are plenty of talented people in the community who are just looking for a place to show off their work. Find them by supporting the art openings, rock shows, and events put on by others. "You've really got to be open-minded and not be prejudiced and closed down by your `cool' barometer," said Hudson.
Make use of the resources in your community, whether it's friends willing to help out by taking money at the door, lending their talents to make artwork for fliers, helping with sound production, or being a friendly face in the crowd. Students who start organizing within a college community have an advantange, according to Sisto.
If you team up with other innovators, you can share ideas and the huge amount of work that goes into making something happen. Pairing up with someone who has a reputation for organizing events can open doors at clubs and with artists, but remember that the whole point of DIY is maintaining creative control. "It's good to work with other people, but choose them cautiously," Recupero said.
Once you've got the foundation in place, accept that it's going to take time to get off the ground. "A large part of any sort of event planning is accepting that the first few times you try anything new, it won't run properly," Sisto said.
The bottom line for DIY: cheaper is better, and that means xeroxing fliers to plaster around town and pass out at shows, using e-mail to keep in touch with bands out of town, and sending event listings to newspapers and radio stations. Start a mailing list at shows and keep people informed of upcoming events. "E-mail is the greatest thing in the world when it comes to putting together your own party," Scanlon said. "Because you can make an electronic flier and just e-mail it to everyone, and anyone who's involved in it can e-mail it to their list, and it just floods, and it's free." Getting the word out is one of the most important parts of organizing any event. After all, your hard work will be wasted if no one shows up. "Make sure that you let [people] know about it," Sisto said. "Because so many great events happen that no one ever knew happened."
In the meantime, promoters have to make sure that the artists are getting ready for the big day, too, whether that means making paintings or learning lines. "If you're having a lot of people involved, you have to really make sure people are on board," Scanlon said. "And that, for instance with this toilet seat project, has involved a lot of reminders via e-mail and verbally."
Once it comes time for the event, promoters often become managers and bouncers, if they're using venues without a traditional club hierarchy. This can mean everything from making sure the bands start on time to enforcing strict rules against alcohol, particularly for an all-ages crowd. Nicholson posts signs with the rules so people know they apply to everyone, and sometimes asks the band to make an announcement.
The reward for all the anxiety and stress is the joy of seeing the music and art, and knowing that you made it happen.
"Every once in awhile, something will happen like a van will pull up, and 10 kids will pile out of it, and I'll look, and it will be one of their moms dropping them off," Sisto said. "I feel like I'm kind of helping to facilitate knowledge getting to peoples' families in the suburbs, that it's OK to come to the city, it's OK for your kids to go to art school, it's OK to get involved in rock music."