The secret show you’ve likely heard of

At the Halloween Show, cover bands perform in Sacramento’s underground, but some fear that success may spell its death

Illustrations by Serene Lusano

The Halloween Show’s theme this year is “Trios”; Primus, Motorhead, the Bee Gees, Spinal Tap and 18 others will perform at an undisclosed location (that you can easily Google) this Saturday, March 25. Doors open at 4 p.m., and the show starts at 5 p.m. The cover is $5 for performers and $10 for everyone else.

“People want it to be the same show that it was 12 years ago; shit, even five years ago. People will see that it’s in the News & Review and think, ’Great, now it’s something else.’ They’ll probably say that you’re part of the problem of turning it into a more commercialized event. I wish I could tell you they wouldn’t be upset at you, but I think they already are.”

—Allen Maxwell, Sacramento musician

Twelve years ago, I was working at an art-house theater where a lady would regularly sneak into the men’s room and smell the urinals for some reason probably best left unknown. It was there that my co-workers told me about the show. I went alone. It was in an attic. The theme was “Cocaine Bands.” A man costumed as Robert Plant was there, and he had a fake dove on his shoulder. As the music kicked in, Plant threw the dove to the ground, hoping to make it look like it was flying.

Years later, when I was performing at the 2010 show, Courtney Love forgot all the lyrics once we hit the stage, despite our having practiced for months. That was cool. I felt like I was really in Hole.

In a more recent year, an audience member kicked someone else in the head. Another person grabbed the headstock of my guitar and turned all the tuning pegs violently and wildly like a hard wind boxing a weather vane. My guitar was out of tune for the entire performance. Still, it must have gone over well because people said it was like really watching Nirvana. In the meantime, someone in the audience broke his leg. All of this happened within the span of 12 minutes.

The years add up. For more than two decades now, Sacramento has been celebrating Halloween twice a year. One arrives, as it has every year since the early 1900s, on October 31, as a secular—yet commercially driven—holiday; a boon to confectioneries and costume manufacturers alike. The other strives to reject any commercial aspects.

After all, profit motives and bureaucracy often lay waste to artists’ goals of collectively constructing a strong, inclusive community within a city. It’s in the underground that artists create on their own terms while waiting to be recognized as a legitimate entity (i.e., moneymaker). This do-it-yourself punk ethos is at the heart of what many consider Sacramento’s best-kept secret. A group of friends created the city’s longest-running underground art project—one that has spanned decades and included generations.

But to some, it’s also just glorified live-band karaoke, an increasingly ornate talent show for an insular, aging group of friends. The masquerade might appear ridiculous to an outsider, to watch a bunch of adults applaud each other’s carnivalesque pantomime of some pathetic performer’s glory days. Stuck in nostalgia worse than a bug suspended in piss-colored amber.

So, why have I been going to this thing for more than a decade?

The rules

It was the fall of 1994 in Midtown Sacramento, and Halloween was fast approaching. A few young punks were looking to book a Halloween cover band show. They knew Scott Soriano would be the man to talk to. Soriano, labelhead of S-S and Sol Re Sol Records, was booking shows at the Loft, the now legendary show space that hosted seminal acts such as Bikini Kill, Lightning Bolt, Unwound and many others during its decade-long run.

Soriano found the young men’s request corny and suffering from a lack of creativity that would make a normie blush. More importantly, Soriano foresaw chaos in the future of the small ramshackle spot—located behind and above Time Tested Books—should he fulfill the wishes of the crusty goons. But an idea germinated in Soriano’s mind, and soon he gave way. The young men could have their show, but not without a set of unique stipulations that would snowball for the next two decades and come to define the nature of the 20-plus-year project.

Rule No. 1: “It wouldn’t happen on Halloween,” recalls Soriano from the cave that houses his record label in a small corner of the Verge Center for the Arts building.

This was for the mostly practical reason of throwing authorities off the scent of the underground operation, with the additional purpose of confounding concertgoers and scrupulous calendar observers alike.

It was established: The show wouldn’t be on Halloween proper. To this day, the show is never on Halloween.

But a lineup composed entirely of cover bands playing on any day other than Halloween at any place other than a casino makes for a time that is annoying for some, while ensuring secondhand embarrassment for others. Soriano’s next stipulation was also a solution.

Rule No. 2: “There had to be a theme,” Soriano cemented.

The theme supplied the glue needed to bind the performers in a single purpose, while allowing the spirit of the holiday to permeate the skeleton of the event. At the time, Soriano and Co. were all into punk rock, so the theme was selected with the edge of Occam’s razor: “Punk.”

But the most important rule of all is the third: No more than two people in an existing band can perform together. This rule pushed people to step out of their friend circles and, as a result, created lasting friendships among many of the participants who would continue crafting the show for decades to come.

Under these circumstances, the young punks now had their “Halloween” show. Soriano set to filling the bill.

A rudimentary screening process was established: Find Soriano, walk up to him, let him know which band you want to emulate, and he would give you a yes or no, right then and there.

The show was organized by word of mouth and the date was set. It was dubbed “The Loft Halloween Show,” but eventually the venue’s name would fall off the show’s moniker like a set of burned-out neon letters. By the time the process was done, eight bands were slated to perform. Black Flag, Germs and the Damned all played, but memory is murky for everyone involved now, more than two decades later.

The first Halloween Show happened in December 1994 at the Loft.

The underground peeks above ground

Mystery would continue to surround the Halloween Show’s yearly wellspring among Sacramento’s musicians and artists. There was no Friendster, no Facebook, no social media whatsoever to help information travel quickly. The ’90s appear medieval in this way, uncomplicated and distant from the dismal digital world we inhabit.

“New Wave” and “Metal” followed “Punk.” Doppelgangers of the Talking Heads and the Go-Go’s performed at the former; while analogues of King Diamond and Marilyn Manson were among the players at the latter. “Metal” is seen as the most disastrous year. Some solos are hard to play. Regardless, a Halloween Show was a success if there were plenty of laughs and camaraderie among the growing community. The metric has never been an exhibition of masturbatory chops. For the masochists who desire to access that rung of hell, it can easily be found on any afternoon at your local Guitar Center.

It wasn’t until 1997 that “Junkies” established a more versatile theme. The broader scope became an essential component to the show’s yearly reimagining. Now, no performer was beholden to a singular sonic palette. Previously, the genre-specific themes allowed for the performances to stay musically similar throughout, but were ultimately limiting to creativity outside of the songs alone.

The open theme opened the third eye of the event: “Some guys did Lou Reed,” Soriano says. “It wasn’t just one guy being Lou Reed, it was four guys being Lou Reed; each one from a different time period of Lou Reed.” The show would solidify its unpredictability with the open theme, as more and more performers sought to push aesthetic limits.

“[The Four Eyes] were most excited about the fact that we could perform as GG Allin,” recalls Joel Goulet of his first Halloween Show. He broke the third rule: The Four Eyes are a three-piece punk band from Sacramento. “We had a fascination with GG Allin, as everyone does.”

Goulet struggles to set the scene with his vague recollections, but he recalls a creep mustache, maybe some aviators and an American flag tied around his waist and wrapped to resemble underwear or a diaper.

“I had some chocolate pudding that I was going to do a poop joke with,” Goulet says, “but by golly the chocolate pudding was in the back of a truck that left the show before we performed, so I never got to do the poop joke.”

Probably a diaper.

Goulet didn’t get to test the scatological waters of a GG Allin performance to the fullest that evening, but it serves to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Six Halloween shows were held at the Loft before it shuttered around 2001 due to burnout, the rapid gentrification of Midtown and not wanting to fight an uphill battle with the city to gain a permit.

But the Halloween Show did not die when the Loft closed its doors.

Then, the punks put on ties

After the Loft years, the show would go on to inhabit other settings—an underground venue in the guise of a cafe, a couple of attics from Midtown to Oak Park, a basement and a repurposed show space next to an auto shop—but each one would house the pandemonium only briefly.

“We’ve always done this show at a venue that is not truly a venue, because this town, as far as I can see, doesn’t support [performance spaces],” says Allen Maxwell, a participant since 1997. “But those that are artistic will come together and make an extraordinary thing happen without the help of the people in charge of the money. It’s done by breaking the rules. We are going to do this regardless.”

But time demands change of everything and everyone. And underground venues in Sacramento tend to pop up and recede quicker than whack-a-mole.

As punks grow up, they trade in their studded jackets for button ups, their butt flaps for khakis, their middle-fingers at the man for handshakes with the man at job interviews. As the various organizers of the show aged and gained responsibilities, so did their ongoing project. The Halloween Show changed rapidly as it matured.

The show had been free to anyone who wanted to watch or perform until it was held at a venue unassociated with anyone involved in the show. At The Hub, a paltry $5 got you entry. Bands would also pay the admission fee. What money was made went to pay for the rental of the space and what was left over was given to charity.

During the first year at The Hub in 2010, after paying venue rental costs, excess cash was donated to the Haiti hurricane relief fund; the following year, the remaining cash went to the local food bank.

“It’s way less punk,” says Guphy Gustafson, organizer and participant of the show since 1995. “It’s more commercial. It’s eight hours long, which I can’t believe seems sustainable.” (Full disclosure: Gustafson occasionally writes for SN&R.)

The show hasn’t been free since its residency at The Hub, and ticket prices (now $10) continue to increase.

“The Halloween Show during the Loft era was always about friends getting together. It isn’t how it is now; it’s a production. News & Review is writing about it. Maybe a news crew will show up this time,” Soriano laments.

The reign of the Roundtable

Word has been spreading that there is a Halloween Show and that it’s not held on Halloween, and that it’s a show consisting entirely of cover bands, and there are props like puppets, costumes, a theme and months of rehearsals all for 12 minutes or three songs—whichever comes first (rule four). It’s all very confusing to someone who has never been, as if the show was a fever dream co-directed by Christopher Guest and David Lynch.

“I once sat in a bar and overheard two women … I’ve never seen discussing the Halloween Show,” recalls Natalie Head, a participant since 1998, “One woman asked the other who set up the show and set the theme; her friend’s response was, ’I don’t know who they are, just a bunch of old hipsters.’ I laughed my ass off, but that’s who we are.”

With more people wanting to attend and needing a venue outside of the underground, it also became apparent that serious organizing was necessary for the first time. A committee, made up of those involved for years, took its namesake from the setting of its first meeting: a Round Table Pizza.

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The Roundtable has set the rules for the last several years of the Halloween Show. They secure a venue, commission food trucks, establish a date, delegate tasks, hire security and hammer away at possible themes.

Notice of the Halloween Show isn’t spread through word of mouth any longer; there’s a blog for that now. When the theme is settled, the blog is updated, a date is announced and, soon after that, a theme is also revealed. The link is shared on Facebook, but no event invite is ever created. Trump won’t tweet about it.

“Usually we are up to about 50 bands within the first minute,” Head says.

The excitement of those hoping to enroll their bands simultaneously is akin to watching the Three Stooges trying to go through the same door at the same time. But the number of bands never eclipses what can actually be accommodated. No matter the number, it’ll be whittled down to a manageable sum.

The blog has also introduced new people to the fold.

Crashing the clique

It wasn’t until 2013, when the Halloween Show was held at the venue and gallery Sol Collective, that the show grew its current veneer as a pseudo-legitimate, albeit small-scale, music festival. A couple of food trucks occupy the space outside. A backstage of sorts now exists. A makeshift dressing room is commandeered by performers tuning guitars, applying makeup, perfecting accents, tailoring costumes and adjusting genitals in uncomfortable spandex underwear. For the first time, an actual stage awaits.

The time at Sol Collective, at which “Soundtracks” and “Tragedy” came to pass, would also mark the introduction of some new figures that would go on to further shape the project. Drew Walker is among the fresh arrivals to the Roundtable and a contributing sound engineer for the last two Halloween Shows, which have taken place at the Verge Center for the Arts.

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“My first impressions were, ’Wow, what a shitshow. This is chaos,’” recalls Walker, a musician and sound engineer. “It was definitely loosely organized. I remember it sounding like crap and wanting so bad to fix it.”

The scrappy quality of the show has never deterred the devoted attendees. Much of the show’s insularity derives from its performers being such die-hard patrons since their first experience.

“My entire life after 25 is completely shaped by my decision to come check out the show,” Head says. She went to her first Halloween Show after having made the trip from the state of Washington with a friend. A few months later, she packed her belongings and moved to Sacramento, marked by witnessing the power of what this community built.

But this dedication has ushered along with it a divisiveness felt by more and more people introduced to the show. “My main complaint about the whole show is that it’s really cliquey,” Walker says. “Every year, the same people who know to camp on the blog get to play.”

But an event with no owner is open to influence. The Halloween Show will continue to change—much to the annoyance of its long line of showrunners.

And, indeed, many would rather the event wasn’t written about.

The show’s current organizer, Matt Sutton, asked that an article not been written. And, if it was to be written, that it focus on the feeling that many of the participants experience the following day, rather than during the buildup a month prior. The lead-up to the event is often riddled with criticism of the show, the theme, the Roundtable and various other low-stakes dramas. The feeling of the day after is one still coated in the residue of having reached a collective orgasmic peak by night’s end. It feels magical to the performers and audience members.

Ultimately, Sutton believed that the show could receive proper documentation only through the assistance of those most involved. Sutton has been an indispensable architect of the show for several years now.

Sutton’s sentiments and concerns regarding its documentation are not without their merit or support.

“[The show] comes out of a punk subculture, and it’s self-sustaining,” says Becky Grunewald, participant since 1995 and former Roundtabler. (Full disclosure: Grunewald also writes for SN&R.) “We don’t need publicity to feed it.

“Everyone who should know about it already knows about it,” Grunewald continues. “It already feels less intimate and too big.”

The death of the Halloween Show has always been coupled with its eventual exposure to the public at large. In recent years, one show was filmed almost in its entirety, and some of the acts are on YouTube. There’s a hashtag every year now so that attendees can upload and cleanly aggregate their Halloween Show videos and photos; the suck-pop sound of an Instagram heart marks the moment of diminishing applause.

Perhaps paradoxically, it’s being archived publicly. Memory won’t be vague. This year, the Roundtable was conflicted over a documentary that was greenlighted by Sutton, to the frustration of participants on and off the Roundtable; the documentary may be shelved. In other words, this article is an added source of contention among the Halloween Show crowd.

“I think it makes it a much more enriching experience to say, ’Do you remember when …?’ to someone who was involved than to say, ’Hey, check out this video,’” Soriano says. “There’s a lot of things that have changed with the Halloween Show that have nothing to do with the show and everything to do with the culture that we live in and how we access memory.”

Snowballing onward

The Halloween Show has continually died. It suffered its first death after money began to exchange hands; once more when the venues were no longer underground; and yet again, when the Roundtable colored the event with a deeper shade of exclusion and exclusivity. But the Halloween Show dies as a star does: Its mass and energy cause it to explode into a supernova, its stardust creating new directions for new life.

It’s unlikely the show will scale back into the shadows of its original obscurity. The future of the Halloween Show has always been uncertain. But the future is not unthinkable. There’s momentum.

Namely because Walker has a vision.

“Eventually I want it to be 6,000 tickets sold; 800 musicians involved; 80 bands, have it booked at the Memorial Auditorium, have it be a two-day-long marathon and have the national news there,” Walker says. “This isn’t about punk rock house shows anymore; this is involved with nonprofits and large galleries.”

Walker’s air castle, while elephantine, isn’t impossible. The direction, while appearing to ignore the wishes of the Roundtable, is more realistically about Walker’s desire to “have it be something Sacramento created and nurtured into a big-ass deal” for everyone to see.

The event finds itself in larger and larger venues—from basements to the nationally recognized Verge Center for the Arts—despite the best efforts of its hermetic organizers throughout the years.

In other words, the ouroboros is getting fat. The Halloween Show will only get bigger. The torch will be passed, or it will be snatched. It is inevitable, but that should also be something desired, a hope for the future of this colossal artistic achievement.

Still, the Halloween Show dies as it diverges.

“I always imagine someday when I am older and grayer, [the Halloween Show] will be back in a tiny room of friends who I don’t even know,” Head says. “But the passion and Sacramento will always be there.”