The bare light bulbs flicker like battered bug-lamps. The beer is bath-water flat on draft. And heaven forbid you ate Tex-Mex for dinner, because the one yellowing toilet in this godforsaken place doesn't even sport a stall door.
But then the band you've been blasting for the past six weeks takes the stage--and you might as well be at Wembley. With five-dollar front-row seats.
If you caught my first column a few weeks back, you know by now that I'm a big proponent of small, local-oriented venues. The more shows I attend, it seems, the more it strengthens my conviction that you'll find the best live music experiences in a tiny, sold-out tinderbox with 200 other sweating, shouting maniacs who know every word and really, really give a damn about the music.
With that in mind, I drew on a few of my own experiences and some advice from fellow music-lovers in my social network to pick out a few of the most memorable (and sometimes most infamous) dive clubs and DIY spaces in the U.S. I haven't been everywhere, of course, so if you've got suggestions for new picks or beef with one of mine, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll hash it out.
Rest assured that at any of these venues--whether you see the show of a lifetime or watch some garage band try to tune its guitars for 20 minutes--you;re going to get your money's worth in terms of good time. Covers are cheap, the clubs themselves have built-in scenes happening around them, and your chances of feeling as though you've wasted your dough will be slim and none. And many, such as the Khyber in Philly and the Basement in Nashville, sit invitingly close to college campuses.
The Khyber, Philadelphia, Pa.: This dive, once known as Khyber Pass, has been around so long that my editor (now in his mid-40s) remembers playing there while still in college and not yet old enough to drink. A few years ago, I flew out to Philadelphia to visit a friend and stopped by the Khyber to catch one of my favorite bands at the time, Brooklyn shape-shifters The Fiery Furnaces. When vocalist Eleanor Friedberger finally took the stage, I found myself so enamored with her (fairly un-rock 'n' roll) white khakis that I felt compelled to punctuate the pre-set silence by screaming at the top of my lungs: "WHITE PANTS! YES!" Then I woke up in a public park on the other side of Philly the following morning.
None of this raised an eyebrow, though, at a bar that remains notorious for running a $10 all-night open bar on Sundays. The Khyber, a two-floor grunge grotto with low ceilings and lower inhibitions, boasts a reputation about as clean as its inky interior. For pure cheap debauchery and rock excess, however, it's unmatched in my book. Bonus points: One Yelp reviewer nominated it for the worst women's bathroom in Philadelphia.
"All I have to say," she wrote, "is this: toilet paper on a chain." Have fun with that, ladies.
Death By Audio, Brooklyn, New York City, N.Y.: Located in the hipster nexus of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this DIY spot from famous indie promoter and provocateur Todd P exemplifies the current trailer-park chic that defines hipster culture circa 2010. On a stroll through the riverside industrial neighborhood that Death By Audio calls home, the venue barely registers as a blip with its lack of signage and fanfare. You're only likely to pick it out from the warehouse surroundings, in fact, when you stumble across the crowd of mustachioed slackers sipping 40s from paper bags out front.
Once a $5 cover gets you inside this former industrial warehouse, though, indie buzz bands bash away on a makeshift wooden stage under cheap auto-shop lamps in a Home Depot set-up that seems tailor-made for a quick cut-and-run (Todd P venues have become a bit notorious for police raids and sudden shut-downs). Meanwhile, kids throw impromptu dance parties, watch cartoons projected on the "Mod-podged" walls and pass around cheap booze, cigarettes and some unmentionables. The anything-goes aesthetic extends to a BYOB policy and an unspoken acceptance of indoor smoking (illegal in NYC for over a year). Prepare to come home covered in confetti, glitter, beer suds and ash.
The Smell, Los Angeles, Calif.: If you're hoping The Smell acquired its name through irony or whimsy... well, you wish. This indie haven, located in downtown L.A., got its dubious moniker due to a distinct lack of ventilation and natural light, as well as the accumulation of years' worth of shared body heat and mass perspiration. Imagine a port-a-potty at an outdoor music festival, but darker and danker. Now expand it into a fifty-foot long hallway that brings in some of the hottest experimental bands on the West Coast (but retains the odor) and you're getting the picture.
Despite its lack of trappings, The Smell enjoyed an improbable rise to national prominence in recent years as the breeding ground for a vibrant local noise-rock scene that ended up crashing into the indie mainstream via breakout acts like No Age, Health and the Mae Shi. Fervent music lovers still pack in almost every night to catch some of indie rock's most avant-garde sounds, and they come in all stripes: The Smell's cheap shows remain open to all ages and (nominally) free of drugs and alcohol.
Black Cat, Washington, D.C.: Perhaps the most conventional venue on this list, Black Cat in D.C. is also the one that probably values the music the most. The venue garners its reputation less on antics and chutzpah than by staying ahead of indie trends, booking the most in-demand acts at the cheapest prices, and treating artists with above-and-beyond hospitality. As a result, intimate performances of the best new music reign and good vibes overflow - you might not come away from a show at the Black Cat with as much grime and bodily fluid as the other venues on this list, but if you can catch your new favorite band there, they'll sign your t-shirt and grab a beer with you afterward.
Ronny's, Chicago, Ill.: It pains me to pass over the beloved Empty Bottle, my favorite venue in Chicago, in this slatternly survey. But there's something honest, straightforward and truly infectious about Ronny's that makes it a perfect fit for this list.
On a quiet night, Ronny's embodies all the cliches of a working-class Chicago bar. It's the kind of place where the neon sign out front announces the name as "R_NNY'S," and where Ronny himself will serve you a lukewarm Old Style six nights out of the week. But when young punks flock in from miles around and pack into the garage space adjoining the dim bar for the hardcore shows that have made Ronny's famous (or infamous) throughout Chicago, the place transforms into a roiling sea of sweaty, scantily-clad bodies careening off each other like superheated atoms. Mass scream-alongs, crowd surfing and stage-diving abound - the latter being especially impressive considering there's no stage. You have to see it (on the right night) to believe it.
And, since I don't have the space to cover as many venues as I'd like, I'll sign off with a few more honorable mentions:
Bottletree Cafe, Birmingham, Ala.
Arlene's Grocery, Manhattan, N.Y.
The Basement, Nashville, Tenn.
The Parish, Austin, Texas
Maxwell's, Hoboken, N.J.
Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at email@example.com.
'Diving' in: America's best (and cheapest) rock rat traps