I set out from campus on a rainy Saturday night with an address and a name in my pocket and only a vague idea of where I’m going or what I’ll encounter when I get there. According to the map on my phone, I’m almost there.
I find it, I think. The bass thumps from the house. An amplified voice is muffled, but audible. A grumpy-looking guy with a beer sits on the porch, which has a handwritten cardboard sign hanging on the door that reads “21+ only.”
I start toward the door but I’m told, “Around back.” I head for the side of the house. In the backyard are a few groups of people, dark and damp from the rain, laughing, sipping from bottles of wine, faces shown by the orange glow of a cigarette.
The back door is open. Purple light and music are spilling out. I enter.
Inside, it’s not the sardine-can, five-hundred-person-party-in-a-tiny-house scene, but it’s definitely crowded. The kitchen gives way to a living room empty of furniture where thirty or so people groove to the music with varying degrees of head bobs and toe taps. The band is just visible over the heads of the crowd. Their stage is the next room toward the front of the house, so the people in the front stand three feet or so from the woman singing. She is flanked by a guitarist, drummer and keyboard player. Massive speakers blast sound from the stage room to the crowd room.
A guy in a navy blue T-shirt and jeans leans against the far side of the archway separating the two rooms, moving with the music, camera hanging from one shoulder, eyes turned to the screen of his cell phone. He’s closer than everyone else, practically amongst the band.
His name is Tommy Calderon and if you show up to a house show in Bellingham, there’s a really good chance he’ll be there too. And he’ll probably be wielding a camera.
Calderon is a Bellingham native and first started going to house shows while attending Squalicum High School. Like many millenneals, Calderon’s first album purchase was Green Day’s American Idiot. It was the beginning of an intimate relationship with music that carried him through high school and continues to affect his trajectory.
“Growing up, I think music was an outlet for me to kind of escape from the things that were troubling me,” Calderon said. “In high school I never really wanted to be the popular kid because it was kind of a superficial thing. Music was something that I could escape to, feel like I could relate to and just be a part of. It meant something to me and it was important.”
When Calderon was in high school, he says there were more all-ages venues in Bellingham, but now people under 21 can only turn to the Make.Shift or house shows. He laments the loss but has made the most of the house show scene.
I made the mistake of asking how house shows fit into the music industry and Calderon quickly set me straight.
“No one’s a part of the music industry here, but as a music community there are people at every show that you see,” Calderon said. “It’s a very tight-knit community where people are very kind to each other. And really supportive, which is why it’s so great to be a part of the house show scene and the Bellingham music scene in general. It’s really welcoming.”
Calderon says the shows happen in a organic fashion. The houses are always changing, bands spring up out of nowhere or from the leftovers of other bands. Audiences are friends of friends of friends, Facebook invitees or people who happened to walk by.
“It’s kind of an adventure every night,” Calderon said.
The night before I caught up with him, he’d been at a house show that included a set from a fledgling death metal band and someone got thrown out of a window. Throughout everything he’s seen, so far Calderon and his camera have managed to survive even the more violent mosh pits.
In the future, Calderon hopes to go on tour with a band and document their stories, music and lives. For now, Calderon distributes his photography through social media. He posts his work on Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram. A musician himself, Calderon has played several house shows.
“Playing a house show by yourself is a completely different experience, just because it’s a really casual crowd and everyone’s right in front of you when you’re playing to them,” he said.
Calderon doesn’t limit himself to house shows, but he says that he’s seen some really good bands in people’s living rooms. In particular, he remembers seeing Special Explosion, a Seattle band that has gone on to make it big.
“They’ve played house shows up here. They’ve been a part of Bellingham festivals like Yellingham,” he said. “But now they’re on a U.S. tour, they just got signed to Top Shelf records and they played at South By Southwest this year. It’s crazy. I know all the guys. They’re great guys, so it’s really fun.”
As Calderon and I talked, the next band was about to start playing, so we headed back into the house. The band calls themselves Noise Toys and they play it loud and angry. I looked across the crowd towards Calderon, wanting to somehow indicate that I dug this sound, but he was already lost, head whipping back and forth to the beat, escaping. So I did the same.