The alternative stage
House shows and DIY art spaces keep Sacramento’s all-ages music scene alive
The band was Jib and the Swigs. Between the threesome’s clangy acoustic punk songs, Jib Haddan had a message for his audience.
“This is my backyard, thanks for being here,” Haddan told the crowd of 50 as dusk fell. “I have an EP that’s for however many dollars you want. Zero is totally fine. … This next song is about something, I dunno, sad.”
The venue was Bart’s House, an old crib along Stockton Boulevard in Oak Park, and the occasion was Bart’s Fest, a two-day, 16-band music festival in September with Jesus and the Dinosaurs, I Kill Cameron, Melissa Schiller & The Baker Miller Pinks and other bands in the local underground. Bart is the house cat, and the rule is: Respect the house, pet the cat.
Bart’s House is not a bar or concert hall; the door fee is pay-what-you-want and the bathroom was a rented porta potty.
But it’s not unusual for Sacramento.
The region has a rich history of house shows and do-it-yourself music spaces, giving a stage to the all-ages underground with an ethos that puts the music first, profits last.
“It’s a mess trying to play a show [in Sacramento], so basically I just book people based on how nice they are when they message me, and that’s it,” said Haddan, who has operated Bart’s House with roommates since May 2018. “I’m not gonna sit there and tell you, ’Your band sucks, I’m not gonna have you,’ because I think that’s garbage. We want good people playing music. That’s the basis of it, and everything else comes together.”
Dotted around the region are similar spaces that put on a show every month or two. Secret Compound in North Sacramento is a backyard studio, while North Pole House in Davis is a living room. There’s also the 10th Street house downtown and The Morgue in South Sacramento, among others.
The house rules are similar: Outside of show expenses, all proceeds go to the bands. The touring act gets paid first, and the locals often play for free. The cover charge is usually $5 to $10 or just a donation, but no guest gets turned away for lack of funds.
“It’s kind of unfair for the people who don’t have money to feel embarrassed that they can’t pay,” said Styles Munson, who runs Secret Compound with partner Clare Murphy. Both musicians, they are prepping a Halloween night show and costume party with bands Fashionista Boyfriend, Mediocre Café and J. Irvin Daily. “We try to be as inclusive as possible.”
The two most notorious DIY spaces opened in the ’90s, starting with The Loft, upstairs and behind Time Tested Books on 21st Street in Midtown. What began as a practice space for bands such as Cake became Sacramento’s premier illegal venue.
Its 10-year lifespan is mostly a blur to Scott Soriano, an indie label owner who helped run The Loft, booking shows with Craig Usher, Charles Albright and other artists.
He remembers a space that was self-policed by a tight-knit community of about 300 artists, where fights and cop visits where minimal, where anarchist groups and the Sisterhood Posse held regular meetings and where bands (Bikini Kill, Unwound, The Yah-Mos) that couldn’t score a gig in above-board venues (The Cattle Club, Old Ironsides) performed.
The Loft was both open to all and exclusive at the same time.
“Besides no racists or fascists, or Nazi bands or sexist bands, if you were a local band regularly playing other venues, then we didn’t book you,” Soriano said.
The Loft met its demise through burnout and pressure from new neighbors in the early 2000s.
“We were never going to try to go to the city to get a permit,” Soriano said. “We weren’t going to get a business license. We weren’t going to let official Sacramento into it, because once we let them know it was there, then they would come and put all their rules on us and close it down.”
Just down the street from The Loft was Casa de Chaos, where in the basement punk bands such as The Secretions were formed. Since its founding in 1992, the venue mostly avoided the attention of local police, benefiting from its location near the center of Midtown’s nightlife scene.
“We were smack dab in the middle of what we used to call the Bar-muda triangle,” said musician Mickie Rat, who used to live there. “On one end of the block, we had Press Club, and on the other end we had Benny’s, and across the street from that, there was Townhouse. … There was so much going on, maybe nobody noticed. Or maybe they noticed and said, ’Meh, doesn’t seem bad, we don’t want to waste our time.’”
In December 2017, tenants at Casa de Chaos were evicted when its owner, real estate firm Rohenco Inc., sought to demolish the house to build new living units.
Though now above-board, one of the most successful modern DIY spaces is the Red Museum, a 15th Street warehouse that doubles as a rehearsal space for paying members. It was temporarily shut down in 2017 for building and code violations, but the city stepped in to get its permits and infrastructure up-to-date.
Local historian William Burg, who moved to Sacramento and into Casa de Chaos in 1993 and has co-organized the annual Norcal Noisefest for over two decades, said that DIY spaces provide an inclusive all-ages venue—and invaluable experience to those who run them.
“There’s not much difference between organizing a punk show and organizing a rally or fundraiser,” Burg said. “You learn that by doing, and by getting over the fear that, ’I can’t make any change, I just have to be a consumer. The people who get onstage at venues and put on shows are somehow different from us and we can’t do those things.’ Of course we can.”
Burg, who is on the board of Preservation Sacramento, has been part of the fight to prevent the demolition of the former Casa de Chaos house. He said he’s optimistic about Sacramento’s music scene, though it’s invariably hurt by rising housing costs.
“San Francisco in the ’60s, New York’s Lower East Side in the ’70s, Seattle in the ’80s, Portland and Sacramento in the ’90s—they all had very vibrant music scenes, and they all had cheap rent,” Burg said. “Finding a way to keep rent inexpensive in an era when downtowns are not inexpensive is a challenge, and that’s when the official level of government comes in.”
Still, house venues continue to sprout. Promoters such as Brianna Carmel of 916 Growth Gigs prefer their more intimate and supportive vibe. Lower overhead costs mean less financial pressure. As a singer-songwriter who performed at Bart’s Fest, she said you’re not competing for dollars, or with bar room chatter.
“I was very caught off guard by people talking during my set, but also clapping after I would finish songs,” Carmel said of a recent gig at a downtown venue. “With house shows … the love and support, you really feel it.”