Sweaty Faces in Small Spaces: The Endurance of Hub City’s Basement Scene
SMALL SPACES TO BIG PLACES
Considering how most New Brunswick-based bands are accustomed to performing in cramped, sweaty residential basements, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to notice a greater sense of freedom felt by these musicians after stepping into the daylight.
Hub City punk acts Delucy, Glazer, Wild Rice, Izzy True, Electric Trip and headliner Screaming Females — along with Providence, Rhode Island, natives Downtown Boys — performed at a free show Saturday afternoon at Elmer B. Boyd Park off Route 18 North in New Brunswick.
The seventh installment of New Brunswick’s “Hub City Sounds” festival series, “I Love New Brunswick,” showcased a collection of new and veteran musicians familiar with calling other people’s homes their stage, said Joe Steinhardt, co-founder of Don Giovanni Records.
With this being the third year where the Don Giovanni label hosted the show in Boyd Park, Steinhardt said finding spaces big enough for New Brunswick punk shows hasn’t become any easier over time.
“(You get) the ability to bring more people as well as the ability to publicize shows better (with big spaces),” he said. “It’s great when they’re able to open up a big space like this for us.”
It only figures that on Sept. 12, one of the few days where these bands get the opportunity to freely perform in the daylight, menacing thunderstorm clouds loomed over the Raritan River.
Knowing that Don Giovanni specializes in independent music in the New York / New Jersey region, with a heavy focus on the New Brunswick basement scene, Steinhardt seemed to cover all the bases.
With collaboration among the New Guard, like the New Brunswick High School students in Electric Trip, to Old Guard bands like Screaming Females, who recently wrapped up a national tour, the basement crawlers took the proverbial bull by its horns.
NEW KIDS ON THE BANKS
Even though drummer Jose Rojas, bassist Omar Lopez and guitarist Christian Gonzalez made their initial appearance as a band called “Caravan” during last year’s show, the Hub City residents in Electric Trip still managed to make themselves known to newcomers.
“We’re just trying to have fun, make sure we’re tight and people like our music,” Gonzalez said. “We’re just trying to play well and make sure people like our music at the same time.”
Being born and raised minutes away from the New Brunswick basement scene gave the aspiring musicians something edgy and unique to look up to.
Just minutes before Gonzalez taught a 5-year-old girl her first “F” word and smashed his guitar with as much passion as the Who’s Pete Townsend against the concrete slab stage, the New Brunswick High School students said being in the scene feels natural.
“(We loved) seeing the New Brunswick music scene growing up,” Rojas said. “I want to be part of a movement that is good for the city, not only for myself, but for the (people in) the city as well.”
PUNK FROM PROVIDENCE
A few moments after Gonzalez smashed his guitar, Rhode Island rockers Downtown Boys took the stage and welcomed the New Brunswick crowd with as much warmth as a home-cooked meal.
Vocalist Victoria Ruiz, saxophonist Adrienne Berry, guitarist Joey DeFrancesco, bassist Mary Jane Regalado and drummer Norlan Olivo, missing saxophonist Emmett FitzGerald, played tracks from their debut album “Full Communism,” which addresses issues related to the nation’s broken systems that are often overlooked.
“An officer uses cigarettes to justify choking a man of color to death,” Ruiz said on the police killing of Eric Garner in New York City.
The vigorous vocalist, in addition to starting every song with a call to action, praised the Black Lives Matter movement as being the most significant act of resistance in contemporary United States.
In order to provide an in-person display of power dynamics, as well as resistance to them, Ruiz asked the audience to stand closer to the band — so close that many attendees were actually standing on Boyd Park’s makeshift stage.
Ruiz’s outrage-fueled lyricism has roots in her experience working for the Rhode Island Public Defender, where she actively attempted to contest classist and racist policing strategies. She recently wrote an op-ed on Ferguson and now works for Demand Progress.
In the midst of wild stage (or concrete slab) antics and frustrated political commentary, Ruiz dedicated the band’s song, “Future Police” to anybody who felt like they were victimized by homophobia, sexism and racism.
Armed with aggression and a desire to incite change in the nation’s broken systems, the self-proclaimed “bi bilingual political sax dance party from Providence” proved to be a fitting opener for headlining trio Screaming Females, who brought Downtown Boys with them during their national tour.
SCREAMING FOR STAGES
“We’re Screaming Females, and we’re from New Brunswick, New Jersey,” said Marissa Paternoster, guitarist and lead vocalist for Screaming Females.
Along with drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist “King” Mike, Paternoster said becoming a part of the New Brunswick basement scene was a transformative experience because Hub City is such a unique place, even though there’s no obvious venue to perform at.
All three members of Screaming Females love New Brunswick, and wouldn’t have become the kind of band they are now if it weren’t for Hub City, Paternoster said.
“You really have to dig your heels in and maybe want it more than the average person,” she said. “I don’t want to single New Brunswick out as being the most difficult place to be a working musician, but it is really expensive to live here.”
Even though she moved out of Hub City more than a year ago, Paternoster said she feels that the city of New Brunswick does not care about providing its people with outlets for artistic expression because doing so isn’t lucrative.
The biggest challenge for working musicians living in New Jersey, particularly young artists playing in New Brunswick, is that the city has no viable venue for an all-ages performance space, Paternoster said.
“The city seems so aggressively adverse to the idea of having a cultural space available (for artists),” she said. “I’m supposing that it’s because it’s not something that they could profit off of. That seems to be their No. 1 concern as far as I’m aware of.”
The New Brunswick basement scene became such a prominent feature in Hub City’s culture because punk bands like the Gaslight Anthem, Bouncing Souls, as well as Screaming Females, didn’t have any better option.
If the city of New Brunswick would advocate for the arts like they say they do, there would be a space where performances could occur legally instead of in homes, where occupants run the risk of being slammed with a $300 noise violation ticket, Paternoster said.
A former show house occupant herself, Paternoster said these residents put more at risk than typical promoters because they contribute a significant amount of their personal lives into hosting bands and allowing their homes to double as venues.
“A lot of these people don’t have a safety net,” she said. “They don’t have families they can go home to, if they’re landlord decides to evict them because of a noise violation. They don’t have money to pay (for) a noise violation ticket to the city of New Brunswick.”
Even though she said living in a show house was fun, the Screaming Females front-woman was able to live with less stress because she had a “safety net” — a family that would take care of her if something terrible, like getting evicted, happened.
Along with other changes within the city, Paternoster is disgusted by plans to knock down the Plum Street parking garage, which showcases a mural she painted less than one year ago, in order to build a new apartment complex.
“There’s nowhere to play, and the places that are kind enough to offer you their space are constantly at risk of getting shut down,” she said. “That being said, that risk can be really exciting and really fun — but it’s definitely a lot harder than in most major metropolitan areas.”
The New Brunswick-based trio plans on giving itself time to relax and work on new material following an extensive national tour until November, when they embark on a short tour of New England, Paternoster said.
Paternoster said the best thing that bands hoping to break out of the New Brunswick basement scene can do is leave: Bands shouldn’t leave and move, but leave and see what else is out there.
It seems that the primary concern of the city of New Brunswick is making money and not advocating education, arts and culture, Paternoster said.
“I wish the city of New Brunswick would be more eager to accept the music and arts,” she said. “The people of New Brunswick are certainly ready, and the students at Rutgers are certainly ready. It’s (just) a matter of creating that space.”
Listen to “Inside Beat Radio” every Thursday 2 to 4 p.m. on 88.7 WRSU-FM Rutgers Radio for more arts and entertainment news.
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