I pull up in front of a house in Minneapolis, which could be any house in Minneapolis, and park the car. It appears no one is home: All the lights in the front of the house are off, and there is an eerie silence when I open my car door. My two companions get out of the car and start walking to the front door, but I freeze.
"Wait. We're just going to walk into somebody else's house?" I ask nervously.
One of my companions turns around and gives me a no-duh stare. "Yeah," he says, shrugging, leading us up the sidewalk and through a door that has been left ajar. He's done this before.
My companion has agreed to take me to my first underground show. Hosted mostly at illegal venues (houses, warehouses, abandoned buildings) and advertised solely by word of mouth, house shows had always piqued my interest. But as with most things that are secret and illegal, I was a bit intimidated by the mystique of these fabled shows. The venues that host these types of events use code names and cryptic language on show flyers to keep unwanted people out, and most illegitimate venue owners are insistent on keeping show announcements classified—or at least off the internet and away from the public eye.
As soon as we step inside, the smell is pungent. Cigarette smoke invades every cubic inch of air as hardcore punk rockers in tattered jeans and dreads slug beers and stand about coolly. Nobody looks up at us when we come in, so we float invisibly through the room, like ghosts wafting through the set of SLC Punk, to pay our cover charge and figure out where we can see the live music. As at most house shows, my more experienced companion explains, the music's in the basement, so we each cough up six bucks and descend into a dark, dank dungeon of earth-shattering noise.
How in the hell did we not hear this from outside? I wonder as my ears immediately start to ring. Thirty or forty people have crammed into the one-room unfinished basement, with only two plain light bulbs casting shadows across the room. We catch the tail end of Angry/Sober, a prototypical hardcore punk band that blasts through two songs in less than two minutes, and wait around as a band allegedly called Kill Mosh Fuck Destroy set up their gear.
Kill Mosh Fuck Destroy are everything that their name suggests. The lead singer spends more time introducing each song than the band spends actually playing, and their main lyrical content consists of repeating "Kill...mosh...fuck...destroy" over various high-speed chord changes. Each song is under a minute long, but they're intense enough that everyone in the room is shoving and jumping against each other in a testosterone-induced frenzy. One particularly astute man carefully unscrews the light bulb above the middle of the room to keep it from getting smashed in the heat of the moment.
The band couldn't have played for more than 20 minutes, and afterward we make our way back upstairs to find some fresh air—a house full of sweaty bodies and cigarettes makes for some challenging breathing conditions. Out on the front porch, we watch a cop car drive by, then come back from the opposite direction a few minutes later. Some of the other party guests on the porch start to panic, so we all file back inside and try to play it cool. The crowds at house shows can be a little anxious, as more and more underground venues are being served with "cease and desist" orders by the city. Live, amplified music is only allowed in licensed venues, and the fact that most house shows are a hotbed for underage drinking and drug use only furthers their danger of getting shut down. Because of this, the owners of the two illegal venues I visit on this damp spring night asked me not to divulge the names, locations, or even physical descriptions of each place (though I will say one of the bathrooms I visited was particularly horrifying).
Back downstairs, we take in a quick set by Twin Ports-based Nordic Waste, a female-fronted punk band with a stereotype-shattering lead singer. Dressed in a plain fitted T-shirt and jeans, with hair neatly cut at shoulder length, frontwoman Rachel Rolland doesn't look like anything you'd expect from a hardcore punk fanatic—and it makes her screeching, agonizing vocals all the more exhilarating.
After Nordic Waste finish, my companions and I pile in the car and head across town to a completely different kind of underground venue. From the outside, the site is indistinguishable from any number of abandoned buildings in the city. But once inside, we're in a colorful, fantastically decorated room with locally made art dangling from the walls and ceiling. I spot a few familiar faces and local musicians wandering about, and watch a couple of stoned kids sit cross-legged on the floor, entranced by the slow-burning noise rock of Peace Creeps. The venue doesn't serve alcohol, but attendees pull PBR tallboys out of backpacks and openly roll and smoke joints. One of my companions trades two cigarettes for a PBR, and the three of us pass it around between bands.
A crazy lineup of seven or eight bands is slated to play, but there isn't a schedule posted anywhere. People seem content to just wait around and see what happens. We watch a quirky two-piece rock band from Brooklyn called Batter Recharger blast through a screeching set that reminded me of the White Stripes on crack. They're followed by a three-piece experimental noise band from San Francisco called Ettrick, who play one continuous 20-minute song with squealing saxophones, two drum kits, and a lead singer/MC who sings unintelligible words into a distorted microphone. Ettrick play until they fall apart, banging their drum kits so hard that they disassemble, leaving a trail of broken instruments and echoing feedback in their wake.
Later on, Kill Mosh Fuck Destroy show up to play, and we realize we have come full circle. The punks from the first show arrive and commingle with the indie kids and noise-rock weirdos, and there is a palpable sense of community pulsating through the room. It's past 1 a.m. so my companions and I decide to retire, spent from listening to mostly hard and fast music for six hours straight. It was my first underground experience, but it certainly won't be my last.