This all feels like a milestone, Dan Shea tells me. We’re sitting in a back room of the Elk’s Lodge basement, a dungeon-esque place with low ceilings and lower lighting. We’re surrounded by stacks of instruments, and people are coming through, running questions by Shea, while an artist works through a solo sax performance nearby to an enthusiastically opened-minded crowd. Since 2009, Boston Hassle has grown from an organization that Shea started, with co-director Sam Potrykus, in order to start booking the sorts of shows he wasn’t seeing around Boston — featuring artists who were having trouble getting gigs in a town where the main venues ignored them — into a large community-run organization with its own newspaper (The Boston Compass) and the oncoming promise of finally becoming a non-profit. And every year, Hassle comes together with a music festival (formerly Homegrown Fest) to celebrate the artists in the Boston area and surrounding states who, as Shea puts it, “might have aesthetic differences, but the philosophical differences aren’t huge.”
They’re bands who may be on different musical paths, but they’re all moving in the same direction — toward encouraging the local music community. And it’s how airy synth pop artist Street Gnar was able to go on before Ed Schrader’s Music Beat’s thrashing attack, which in turn preceded electro acoustic improviser Keith Fullerton Whitman. And with the growing success of these bands and the organization, this year featured an even bigger lineup than ever before: Speedy Ortiz, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Prince Rama, and more, took the stage over the weekend to burn through quick 20-minute sets without any breaks in between. This year especially found more and more of these local-level bands gaining national attention.
“Part of the reason of getting to do any of this was that bands you were seeing that you knew, local bands, weren’t getting the credit or attention they deserved. It would appear that that moratorium on Boston is over,” said Shea shortly before having to rush off to another task. He was understandably busy; this was a big day.
Dense too. Boston Hassle Fest 5 crammed 34 bands into that basement over two days, and as soon as one would finish, the next would immediately start in the next room, bringing a sort of growing momentum (and chaos) to the entire night. Even when things ended, the Fest moved down the block into a new space to continue things after hours. I came in on Friday to find one of Stereogum’s 40 Best New Bands, Designer, already tearing the place apart, their frontman (shirtless and in sunglasses) being the most enthusiastic mosher in the pit. It was a good sign of just how wild things would get.
“Hello, I’m Dan Deacon,” said Ed Schrader before bringing the best set of the entire weekend. “And I’m Beach House. All of them,” added his bassist Devlin Rice. While 20 minutes might seem like a rush job for some artists, that was enough time for Schrader to play through many of his best songs, try out some excellent new material, and surprise everyone with a cover of KISS’s “I Wanna Rock And Roll All Night.” People hung off of pipes and screamed/sang the mantras that come with tracks like “Rats” and “I Can’t Stop Eating Sugar.” Schrader needs only a floor tom to capture an entire audience, and sometimes he doesn’t even need that. An Ed Schrader set moves from the high-speed screamed rush of “Gas Station Attendant” to the a cappella float of “Air Show,” and the crowd was shouting support (and requests) the entire way through. Schrader is a funny and friendly guy (he even helped me find the bathroom when I first showed up), yet when he plays he seems absolutely possessed, completely invested in what he’s creating and it’s something I never tire of seeing.
The headliner of the day was Lightning Bolt, and it can’t be stressed enough how perfect the space fit them. A little while back the band played a bigger Boston venue, but here they were in a musty basement with low pipes — it was where they belonged. The crowd went ballistic once Brian Chippendale began drumming. Bodies on top of bodies, crowd surfers were practically pushed into the ceiling (one upside-down guy walking his feet along the ceiling, was just one of the beautifully bizarre things in the mayhem). It was hard to even see the band, but occasionally one body would move out of the way and for a split second you would see Chippendale in his trademark wrestler mask with a mic underneath the mouth (the cords coming from under the mask almost make him look like Bane). Following that people headed a few blocks over to the downstairs of Cantab Lounge (and at Western Front the next night) for an after party until early morning. Krill were as great as I’ve come to expect after seeing them open the Exploding In Sound anniversary show a few weeks back. The best surprise however was Cloud Becomes Your Hand, a band that creates hypnotic songs that sound like punk rock coming from a music box.
Saturday brought less chaos, and a slightly smaller crowd. Speedy Ortiz’s set was interrupted multiple times when all the power in the building went out. Despite those problems, which inevitably led to sound issues, the band hit a stride before its time ran out. Guerilla Toss, one of the most exciting bands in the Boston music scene, drove the crowd to Lightning Bolt levels of crazy. Their noise rock has a funky backbone to it that brings to mind early Boredoms, as does lead screamer Kassie Carlson, one of the fiercest front-women in the game today. She lunges herself at the convulsing and throbbing crowd as their asses and heads shake and bang simultaneously. It was a nice torch-passing moment considering the acts to follow were Nate Young (of Wolf Eyes) and Black Dice. Even after seeing many concerts by them, I still get a special excitement from seeing the Dice create an absolute dance party out of noise. In a live setting their warped guitars, bent synths, and howled and grunted vocals completely entrance. It left me in a daze as I stumbled through the closing neon-lit Prince Rama set as the night came to a close.
This may have been a festival to celebrate bands that couldn’t get attention in Boston, but that’s changing, as indicated by this year’s massive turnout. The first night was beyond sold out (I actually met two people who created fake wristbands in an attempt to get in), and on both nights fans stuck around well after the T’s closed down. As spoken-word artist Ben Hersey put it in his set, “People worry they’re not getting respected. But not tonight.” He wasn’t talking about the festival, but it applies just the same. These bands are growing and flourishing right now, and it was a pleasure to spend two days with them all crammed into a dark old basement. Shea was right, it was a milestone. A sweaty, bloody, grimy, beer-soaked milestone.