finding light in the sound

It was cold, windy and fucking loud...

The backyard was filled with smoke and solo cups as greasy haired kids in ripped pants skated the mini ramp next to us. Our amps echoed off the back of a neighbor’s house as they raked leaves on a cool November afternoon. They looked up, shook their head, and went back to work.

We were playing well and with abandon, ripping through two covers and two originals. Then in the opening riff of the fifth song, like something out of a movie, a local neighbor stormed into the backyard donning Carhartts and gardening attire, wielding a sharp and shining pair of garden clippers. She charged over to the band and for a moment the only thing between me and her was my screaming, crackling amp.

We didn’t flinch.

She stared right at me with fire in her eyes then took her clippers to my amp’s power cord. The host of the party rushed over and escorted her out of the back yard. Blue and red lights followed in her warpath.

We wouldn’t play any more songs that Saturday afternoon.

“There’s a big university stuck in a small quiet town that doesn’t want a big university here,” said Officer Kevin Abbott, one of the police officers that I had to speak with to avoid arrest.

It’s true, a live band at a house party would be too loud for the town of Durham. The police would come quickly, and any loose collegiate fun would be squashed in minutes. The issue is prevalent here in Durham. Students looking for opportunities to play live music must often resort to short-lived and unreliable house parties. Since the bars in Durham do little to nothing to book local bands, musicians have to risk it at house parties if they want to play for big and energetic crowds.

“There’s just no demand for that music,” says Jay, manager of the popular bar Libby’s, who asked that his last name not be used.

But that’s not totally true. An entire community with seemingly no other opportunities for live music was lost in Durham in the spring of 2017 at the University of New Hampshire. A beloved and short-lived venue for house shows and live music came to a sad and unsurprising end. The Emporium, as it was known, was a rarity and the last and only private house to host live music shows on weekend nights in Durham.

For so many in the artistic communities of towns like Dover, Newmarket, and Portsmouth, the downfall of this venue was tragic.

“Since the advent of the Internet and illegal downloads/streaming services, the live performance is much more important for newer artists to be heard and to help them generate a following and a resume that will allow them to get the kind of paid gigs that will sustain them financially for the long haul,” says Justin Uhlig, a renowned events coordinator in the seacoast area, and head of the Barnstormer’s Music and Art collective.

Once you add thousands of college students in the local area who want something to do with their booze-fueled weekends, live performances become even more important.

Given the size of UNH (about 15,398 students), one would assume that there would be a diverse array of things to do come the well-earned weekend. However, Rico Brea, the founder (and tenant) of The Emporium, thought differently.

“I really didn’t like the parties at UNH. It’s just a bunch of people crowded with a bunch of shitty music. But all my friends knew how to, y’know, play music.”

So Brea built a stage ...

The parties grew as word spread around campus, and soon on any given weekend night there were hundreds of people surrounding his small home, not even a quarter mile from main campus. They were all there to see local acts. When The Emporium met its lawful demise at the hands of Durham Police Department, the UNH artistic community found itself reeling for outlets, and there was little hope of playing house parties.

Unfortunately, this is most often the fate for attempts at hosting loud, raucous and energetic live music shows. But it’s not as if a lack of live music is keeping Durham quiet. On weekend nights Main Street is flooded with loud, drunk energy. UNH students flock to the bars and fill the street with laughter and yells. The police aren’t much of a powerful presence there. Occasionally a cruiser will roll by slowly, investigating the dense crowds, but rarely do they stop and apprehend students who are being too loud or disorderly.

“There’s a noise ordinance in Durham from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.” explained Deputy Chief Rene Kelley of the Durham Police Department, “but that wouldn’t apply to bars and restaurants.”

Durham is a small town. You can hear Main Street on a Saturday night from across campus. I would think that a band in a concrete basement of a bar would be quieter than the students in the street are. “We only do live music on Fridays and there are two solo guys that usually play. They honestly fill in almost every Friday so I don’t think I have much for open slots” said Ryan, an employee of the Durham bar The Knot, who kept his last name anonymous. “One guy Travis, he’s played here for like 10 years. He usually lets people go up and sing a song if they are interested.”

There wasn’t much clarity on his end as to why there was no new acts coming in to the bar. Perhaps the management just didn’t want to cater to a live show, or maybe they just don’t care to engage with the artistic communities.

As for Libby’s, they seemed to be adhered to a certain mindset. “The demand on busy nights is for DJ music. It seems like the demand isn’t there for live music,” explained Jay. “It hasn’t presented itself to the bar on very many occasions. I mean, I don’t have anyone on staff that books, but it just doesn’t seem like there’s a demand. About 20 years ago there were more bands, and they were here every weekend. I’d like to go back, there just isn’t a demand.”

So, students who want to play shows without fear of arrest in Durham have to spend time convincing a bar’s management that it’s worth their time and energy. Simply hosting a house show just isn’t as easy as it seems.

“It can be problematic” said Chief Kelley referring to live music at private homes, “if it’s past 10, and if the music is disturbing the peace, then that it is considered disorderly conduct.”

Unfortunately for the bands, most college parties aren’t even in full swing by 10 p.m. So if a band or host wants to play it safe, the music might be playing to an empty room.

But hope isn’t completely lost. On Mill Road in Durham, there’s the Freedom Café, a non-profit café that donates its proceeds to the cause of ending human trafficking. The café hosts events such as “Perform for Freedom,” which is an open mic that encourages live musicians, writers, poets, other artists to come contribute something.

“Our open mic allows folks to come together in a supportive environment around a love for music, expressing and desire to see beneficial change in the world,” explained the café manager Bryan Bessette. “There is a lot of creativity, honesty and quality material coming from the stage which makes you want to listen and maybe even try your hand at writing something or performing.”

The Stone Church in Newmarket has been hosting shows that are no longer strictly 21+, which allows more students and young people to come. The booking agent for the venue, Greg Rothwell, has been actively trying to make a point to book more local acts for the sole purpose of maintaining a scene. In addition, Sue’s Space in Rollinsford is a DIY venue for musicians who can buy a membership for a monthly rate, which allows them to book two events per month in the space.

“From my perspective, I see some very encouraging signs in the local music and art scene and a large number of amazing and dedicated people working tirelessly to, for lack of a better term, make it great again,” Uhlig summarizes.

These venues can’t save a community on its own, and they can’t satisfy band’s desires to play at parties. But, they are examples of the environments that Durham needs more of, and maybe they can somehow inspire other local businesses to join the effort too.

There is an entire community here who finds light in loudness, and who are desperate to find an adequate outlet. There is truly one hell of a demand.

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