Only something incredible or awful could happen when 60 people cram into the living room of a half-finished house on Hillsdale St. at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night.
But here they are. At an off-campus house called the Boondocks — where blankets cover the windows, and floor lamps illuminate a band crowded in front of a mess of amplifiers and wires blocking off the front door — nine of their classmates are putting on a rock show.
With varying lineups, nearly always composed of members of the musical fraternity Phi Mu Alpha, these student bands have played at many school events, including the Student Activities Board Welcome Party and the Phi Mu Alpha Battle of the Bands in the 2016 Fall semester.
But the performance on Friday, Feb. 17 was no school event. This is the Boondocks House Show — an unofficial concert put on by students for students.
Sophomore Ryan Burns leans into a greasy microphone and psychs up the audience while behind him senior David Johnson tunes his guitar and sophomore Shad Strehle checks that his bass is still plugged into the amplifier. In the far corner, drummer and junior Dean Sinclair opens a window to air the room out.
“This is one you’ve all listened to in your car,” Burns says. “Get ready to sing along.”
The band breaks into the familiar chord progression of The Killers’ “When You Were Young,” a favorite among student bands on campus. The audience starts dancing, stomping, jumping — and of course, singing along to every word.
When Burns belts out the line in the song’s chorus, “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus,” freshman Ben Garst turns to a printed picture hanging on the living room wall and shouts, “There’s Jesus! It’s him!” Senior Alexandra Howell, dancing near Garst, whips around to face him and asks if he’ll come to mass with her the following Sunday. Garst declines and rejoins the wild crowd.
On the other side of the room, junior Brigette Hall dances while a blue Campus Security hat atop her head sways with her body’s motion. Hall had been designated “the bouncer” before the show — to keep rowdy people out — but in the middle of this Killers’ anthem about love and loss, that joke is long-forgotten.
As the band rips into the final chorus, the audience’s fervor rattles a colonnade of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans on a shelf above. Someone bangs into the wall and tips over the shade of a glass lamp decorated with the PBR logo.
Senior Jake Coonradt, a Boondocks resident, grabs the mic from Burns when the band concludes the song.
“Hey, Public Service Announcement,” he says. “The basement is literally made of cardboard boxes.We can totally rock, but jumping around — not so much.”
No one knows if he’s joking, and the jumping continues. Coonradt would repeat his plea later when his own band launched into Queen’s “We Will Rock You” — the classic sports arena stompfest.
Both Burns’ and Coonradt’s bands — tonight called “Melophobia” and “Quran Quran” — are part of a Hillsdale College students increasing efforts to build an off-campus rock scene.
From the very beginning of the show, when junior Heather Woodhouse played “Moon River” on the flute, accompanied by Coonradt on the guitar, attendees were pushing to the front of the crowd, standing on couches, and craning their necks to see their classmates perform — and when the rock started — to sing along.
“I love watching my friends play,” sophomore Suzie Peyrebrune said. “There’s more meaning in the music for me when it’s performed by people I know.”
Strehle said the house show allowed student bands even more freedom for musical connection with their peers — and in ways that might not be appropriate for on-campus events.
“It’s small, intimate, loud as hell, and nobody is telling you what to play,” he said. “There seems to be a pressure to appeal to popular tastes with other shows on campus, but a house show allows for a more raw and enjoyable feeling.”
Strehle, already known for his on-campus performances of the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” took advantage of the Boondocks’ no-rules-allowed atmosphere to rap a cover of “Break Stuff,” Limp Bizkit’s 1999 nu metal anthem about anger issues.
“The song is objectively horrible, but I love it anyway,” he said.
Other songs on Melophobia’s setlist reflected the free-spirited attitude of the band. Under the guidance of junior Mark Naida’s throaty whine, they played Chicago-based rock band The Orwells’ 2014 anti-war song “Who Needs You,” made famous by lead singer Mario Cuomo’s provocative gyrations during the band’s debut performance of the song on the David Letterman Show. Naida did not imitate Cuomo’s Letterman antics, but instead, he let loose his voice, which at its best sounds like industrial sandpaper or a washboard rubbed on a whiskey-soaked Billy Corgan track.
“At a house show, melody is a suggestion,” Naida said a few days beforehand.
The band also played the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” Alvvays’ “Marry Me, Archie,” and Black Lips’ “Bad Kids” with Naida as vocalist. Burns sang the remainder of their set.
Although the show went smoothly, it only came together in the hours before. While Burns, Johnson, Strehle, and Sinclair were practicing the instrumentals, Naida ran into the room wearing basketball shorts and dress shoes, holding a sheaf of lyrics printed out from the website A-Z Lyrics. He hopped on the mic, excited to perform his songs, some of which he had not looked at in weeks.
“First I was playing basketball, then I had Tower Light, then dinner, now I’m practicing here — and I haven’t showered in four days!” he said.
As the band played, Naida noticed the sound mixing was disproportionate to the vocals, so much so that while the drums, bass, and guitar shook the Boondocks’ living room, he could hardly hear his own voice above the din.
“You’re going to need to turn the vocals up,” he said to his bandmates. “This is a house show — everyone is going to want to sing along.”
And while most of the audience did sing along during the show, some complained that they could not always hear the vocals clearly, even after the band turned them up throughout the night.
“They just weren’t loud enough,” senior Oliver McLeod said. “But I think that’s in the nature of a house show — although Mark Naida does what he does with his voice very well.”
Sophomore Mike Purzycki said he liked how the Boondocks’ slipshod venue — a few amps, some old microphones, and a lock for the front door so people wouldn’t come in that way and unplug the tangle of wires — made the concert a more visceral experience.
“I thought it was amazing,” he said. “Even though the house is so small, it felt like a real rock concert because everyone was dancing and getting into it.”
Junior Aaron Andrews, who played the drums for Quran Quran, said playing music in front of a crowd like the one at the Boondocks made him feel like a real rock star. During the band’s performance of “We Will Rock You,” Andrews kept time by beating his free hand on his leg. He hit himself with such vigor that now he has a palm-sized bruise on his inner thigh. Andrews laughed when he said that although the bruise hasn’t turned dark blue yet, he expects it will soon.
“I gave my body for the band,” he said.
Andrews said performing in front of a live audience means more than just throwing your whole body into the show — it’s about the endorphin rush of performing and becoming a star, if only for a moment.
“If ‘cool’ is a real thing, the closest you can get to cool is rocking in front of a crowd,” he said.