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Unofficial music venues keep it real

In the corner of the dimly lit cave, wedged between a stone wall and the hot-air heater, drummer Devin Hurley flails out the beats at a lightning pace, while just a few feet away hot-air pipes splay like bloated fingers just inches over the head of bass player Matt Ontjes.

The singer and guitarist, Mike Visser, has a bit more room. He's in front, almost in the middle of this 20-foot-by-20-foot cave, his voice creating an eerily beautiful yodel as his melodies soar higher through a mildly distorting PA system.

The band is called Frank Jordan, and it's just the first of three bands to play on this balmy summer night at the High Life House, literally and figuratively an underground music scene right in the heart of Colorado Springs' old North End.

It's just one of many places around town these days where music happens outside the traditional, approved boundaries of nightclubs, park band shells, concert halls and stadiums. At this little unofficial venue, for example, there's no bar and all four hosts live upstairs. The shows only happen occasionally, and a good chunk of the night can be spent hanging out in the living room, kitchen or front stoop.

In the music den downstairs, there are no seats, stools or tables. When I find a comfy place against the wall to bob my head, small avalanches of mortar, between the wall's massive stone chunks, tumble down into the back of my pants. Just like home.

And that's the beauty of these events. Whether they're in back yards, basements or living rooms, house concerts provide a homey atmosphere for people to groove to the tunes without the distraction of beefy bouncers, pickup lines and TV sets blaring CNN.

"The people at [house concerts] actually care about the music," says Rob Schumacher, drummer for the Dallas-based band Lucy Loves Schroeder, before playing at the High Life House. "They didn't come out for beer, or whatever; they come for the music."

Punk musicians have long relied on house parties because there are few venues for the smaller, under-21 crowds that punk tends to draw. But it goes back even further. In the Jazz Age, there was the speakeasy, and later the loft concerts of the avant-garde, postbe-bop era. The folk world seems to be going through the biggest house-concert growth spurt right now, but it's always been a big part of the scene. With all these genres, the house concert offers a place where lesser-known or more experimental artists could find an audience in front of people interested enough to take a risk on an as-yet little-known artist.

But there are some stresses associated with the underground music world. The folks at High Life House, for example, were helpful and very friendly. But they were justifiably worried about the hassles a little publicity would bring. Technically, such shows are legal, but they can be shut down if they violate noise or parking ordinances -- though so far, the High Life crew says there have been no complaints from neighbors.

The legality of house concerts is also tenuous: It was only affirmed last year after one purveyor of folk music concerts, Rob Gordon, vigorously defended his once-a-month shows from the assault of a well-heeled neighborhood group in Skyway.

So it's no wonder that posters for High Life almost never feature the house's address. If you want to see the upcoming shows -- 7,000 Dying Rats or Casket Lottery -- you'll just have to ask around. Another person hosting a one-time house show for jam bands on the near West Side shunned any publicity at all for fear of being shut down.

So where do you find out about these shows? It's not that hard; just keep an ear to the underground and an eye on the posters taped up at record stores, clubs and coffee shops. Also check out www.leechpit.com. Folk, jazz and classical house concerts are easier to find. Because they're quieter and are attended by older people who, in general, have less to fear of "the man," they're often publicized openly in newspapers.

--Malcolm Howard

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