Updated: April 23, 2018 at 12:23 a.m.
In a three-story walk-up just off campus, music blares from the living room and Christmas lights shake with each booming riff of indie rock. As you enter the apartment, people wait at the top of the staircase asking for a suggested $5 donation – it’s for the touring bands.
The do-it-yourself music scene is spread across the District, but many students don’t know one venue is right in their backyard. Above the Bayou is a DIY music space – where independent musicians finance and host their own concerts – that also houses three students.
Ben Ureles, a senior majoring in English and one of the students living at Above the Bayou, said he and his two roommates host one show in their living room a week, booking three or four act sets of different indie rock bands. The location of the space remains confidential, he said, because house venues are often shut down because they are not authorized to host large events.
At times, upwards of 80 to 90 concertgoers – typically students – pass through the space. But Ureles said there is a demand from bands both local and out-of-town to play their venue. Through word of mouth, posters around campus and a Facebook page, they are a venue that offers exposure for musicians across skill levels.
Though they only began living in the space in August, he said Above the Bayou has historically been a house show venue. There have been dips in the building’s activity since the 90s but the previous tenants also held shows, and Ureles said the new residents wanted to continue that.
“We’ve never really gotten any complaints,” he said. “I think most of the tenants know what the deal is.”
The living room walls are covered with dozens of bands’ signatures surrounding a District flag wall mural, Pink Floyd posters and a chalkboard wall of doodles. Sound-proofed cushions under jigsaw mats cloak the floor. This room – with two couches, three large windows and a lot of open space – is the stage for shows.
Growing up, Ureles was classically trained in guitar and played with orchestras in large concert halls. He said the etiquette that comes with music ensembles is starkly contrasted by house shows, which he prefers. While he is not completely devoted to the DIY music scene, Ureles appreciates the freedom of expression that comes from the intimate space.
“There are times where the audience actually sits down on the floor and watches the set,” he said. “So this is a place where I think people aren’t necessarily supposed to be pointed out for their musical ability, it’s more of a sharing act.”
Spoken word artists and novice guitarists perform in the space on some nights while on others it’s a raucous experience where jams reach intense volumes. Ureles said you can sometimes see the crowd’s jumps bending the floor from the adjoining kitchen.
“Sometimes people will break things or things will have a hole in them in the hallway,” he said. “But, you know, those things are just part of the game.”
Indie rock band Nowadays from Cape May, N.J. closed last week’s set with a feisty, melodic act, taking elements from surf rock, punk and power pop with chanted refrains and searing guitar riffs.
Nowadays vocalist and guitarist Robert Cline, a sophomore majoring in political communication, first played Above The Bayou with his band in November. The band has since played the venue three or four times.
Compared to the “dozens” of nightly shows in Philadelphia – where Nowadays first broke ground – Above the Bayou is the only space in downtown D.C. he knows of that hosts house shows. The DIY scene in the District has become “small and scattered” and relegated to Maryland suburbs, but Cline said he is trying to change that.
He said he hopes to rent a space in the Georgetown area that he can use for more events, and develop a scene that involves a downtown D.C. student population.
“I just want people to be themselves,” he said. “So that’s been something I’ve just been trying to navigate, trying to figure out how to do DIY on this campus, if we open the space to do shows are people gonna come. Who knows?”
Cline said there is a challenge to get these scenes off the ground, and that college culture often means that students trade their creative passion for a career-focused lifestyle, especially at GW.
“I know there are people here because when you walk around you can see – that person’s a punk, they’d be into this kind of thing,” Cline said. “So I know there are people here, it’s hard finding them through your friends.”