In the old days, North Bay punk shows used to mean sleazy nightclubs with steroid-crazed bouncers, antagonizing pay-to-play policies, a rowdy bunch of pissed-off fans and an overpriced two-drink minimum. But on a recent Saturday evening, the punk rock underground converged at the Boogie Room and Gardens, a sprawling property tucked away deep in rural southwest Santa Rosa that's become a lightning rod for the most exciting cultural activity the city has seen in years.
Much like the long-running house concerts at Studio E in Sebastopol, the scene at the Boogie Room is as distant from a nightclub as can be imagined. Out the side of a leaning barn, cheap drinks are sold for $1. Dogs play fetch and chickens cluck in the background. People gather around a campfire, in a makeshift tent or among the collection of furniture hauled out in the middle of a huge field, underneath the owls. Scattered around the property are an apiary, a large greenhouse and an impromptu shrine made of obsidian, jawbones, rocks, jewelry, a small Buddha statue and a French soprano saxophone.
While the sixth band of a 13-band North Bay Pyrate Punx benefit show rattles the wooden siding of the adjoining barn on a recent July night, resident Kyle Neumann attempts to explain just what in the world has been happening here since the space starting hosting shows over a year ago.
"We're trying to go back to earlier days, when people took pride in their lives and took their livelihood into their own hands," he says. "Back in the day, when they would have hoedowns, it'd be a local band. Those guys were farmers, they worked in the mercantile, they worked in the tannery. You could see those guys on a daily basis around the community, and then they'd just get together at night because they loved playing music for people, and people would dance to it. With the music venue, that's what we're trying to do: support people who love to make music and people who love to hear music."
With the 2007 closure of Epiphany Music in Santa Rosa, the city's all-ages underground faced an all-too-familiar quandary of having no place to play in a city that says it wants to support its youth and its nightlife, yet routinely cracks down on both. This time, however, instead of relying on an outside venue, the kids took matters into their own hands—and their own living rooms. It wasn't long before under-the-radar spots like Boys Club, the Blue Barnacle, the Crux House, the Petaluma Church, the 600 House and numerous other residences-as-venues began cropping up to fill the void.
The Boogie Room is unique among these places in that it presents far more than just music. Monthly writing workshops with SRJC professor Richard Speakes happen here, as do gardening workshops and Food Not Bombs gatherings. A theatrical production of Ibsen's A Doll's House is in the works for the fall, and all of the residents are looking forward to the Second Annual Insect Carnival, a three-day festival of rampant creativity (last year's event featured dozens of bands, fire dancers, a mud pool and a full-on, robe-clad, candlelit evangelical barn revival).
If the heart of the Boogie Room is its music barn, then its soul is surely the large garden area. Each of the four residents and six core collective members tend to the gardens, which contain everything from lettuce and tomatoes to goji berries, bananas and yerba maté. The organizers take great pains to mention the gardens on every flyer or posting about their shows, and when I ask why, almost all of them simultaneously utter the word "sustainability."
"It feels like a really pivotal point," says Nicko Wilde, "not just for us living here, but also for the world." Continuing the thought, Kyle Martin adds, "People are getting the point that we need to start putting our own roots in the ground and settling in what makes ourselves feel good and what sustains us. And it's definitely incorporating our do-it-yourself ethics—"
"—Or do-it-together!" enthuses Bryce Dow-Williamson, in the sentence-finishing style which seems to be the main form of discourse here. Dow-Williamson, who's something of a navigator for the music events, sees a direct connection to the hands-on gardening and hands-on music at the Boogie Room. "In the time that we're living in, more people are able to make music and spread it around," he says. "It's kind of like harking back to folk music, where it's really just accessible—anybody who has some good thoughts in their head and can learn a few chords can get together.
"Music a lot of times these days is all about how many people you can possibly cram into the space," he continues. "Just get as many as possible, no matter what, use whatever strange image that will get somebody's attention—get them there, and ready to rock! But we want the people who'll be here to be respectful. So we're going through word of mouth, generally, and it's important to do that. This would be entirely impossible over-the-radar."
The music at the Boogie Room is by no means limited to any one genre. Whether it's the junkyard classicism of the Highlands, the Theremin-grizzled funk of Battlehooch, the experimental one-man atmospherics of Goodriddler, the synthesizer majesty of the Iditarod or the carnival folk of the Crux, the music at the Boogie Room is consistently varied, organic and immediate.
Outside at the ever-present campfire area, in a juxtaposition to the punk band inside, the Crux's Tim Dixon plays a beat-up acoustic guitar and sings Dylan's "Mama, You Been on My Mind." And in the ultimate display of what makes the Boogie Room special, I realize when I leave that out of the hundreds of people gathered here in the last few hours, I haven't once seen anyone talking on a cell phone; everyone talks to each other face to face, the old-fashioned way.
"The whole point of what we're doing here," concludes Neumann, "is to teach and learn the things that it was convenient for society in general to stop teaching people. If we don't know how to grow our own food, we're reliant on a store to provide that food for us—which is, you know, moneymaking, and we have no say in the quality that goes into that food.
"If we have to go to the mechanic, or the carpenter, plumber, electrician or blacksmith, then we're reliant on someone else for our survival in this world. I see this as a place for me to teach the survival skills that I know, and to learn from other people the survival skills that they know. And to share it with not just the people that live at the house, but the entire community."