A one-story house, garage bands and the maestro behind it all

On a side street with no lights, there’s a house with no name.

A single porchlight illuminated the small doorstep and a few cars had parked in the driveway, but those were the only signs that the house was open for visitors. It’s not the type of place you just stumble on. You had to look for it.

A big guy with long wavy brown hair perched on a stool by the front door. Next to him was a cooler with a jar sitting on top. He marked backs of hands with Xs after guests paid a $3 cover charge, either in cash or through Venmoing Oxford-DIY. There were also cans of Natural Light for $1 each—some cans inside the cooler and others in the open, chilled in the crisp November night air.

Senior Maddie DePaoli stood outside the house talking to a friend. She wore a 90s-esque gray sweatshirt with “School Bus” embroidered on the front in bright colors and a neon yellow mesh vest. A construction paper wheel hung around her neck by a piece of string and a paper stop sign was banded around her arm.

That night’s house show landed on Hallo-weekend, so she was dressed as a bus driver. And also the school bus.

Her friend Michael was wearing a plaid flannel button-down over a hoodie, and said he’s dressed as a guy going to a house show.

***

At 9 p.m., there were only about a dozen people at the house, including the band members. The start time was listed as 9 p.m. on the Facebook event for the show, but that was not strictly enforced. It all depended on how many people were there.

Before the show started, Maddie stood in the kitchen, sipping a drink from her plastic chalice.

She wasn’t who everyone was there to see but she was the reason everyone—the big guy at the door, the band, the crowd—was there that night. This wasn’t her house, though.

In fact, she never hosted a show at her own house. She said she didn’t have the ideal space for it.

The ideal house, according to Maddie, has a large open space for the bands to perform and a crowd of people to watch. Basements are best, but that night’s venue only had a two-car garage, which Maddie said is the next best thing.

She also liked when houses have outdoor spaces for people to hang out, either a porch or a backyard.

“A lot of people that come to these shows, they like to smoke their cigs,” Maddie said.

She tried to have a rotation of a few different venues so one house didn’t have to host every single time.

“I’ve never seen anything rowdy, I’ve never had the cops called,” Maddie said. “But if I had to host something big like that and make sure my house is clean and all that kinda shit eight times per semester, I’d get worn out.”

This house had just one story. When you walk in, the living room is straight ahead with a TV, fireplace and a cat tower. Just about every surface was some shade of off-white or beige, except for the back wall with the fireplace, which was wood-paneled like the basement of a family home from the 70s.

Through the small kitchen was a door leading to the two-car garage. The door was open, letting the chaotic sounds of the first band warming up echo through the rest of the house. Meanwhile, members of the two other bands slated to perform that night walked in and out of the front door, carrying equipment and setting it in the corner by the dining table.

Two bowls, one filled with red jello shots and the other with blue, took up space on the kitchen counter. A sheet of computer paper taped to the cabinet above had “$1” written on it in Sharpie, and then below it, “Pls help, these shows double our electric bill.”

***

“Music is starting!” Maddie shouted through the house at around 9:30. The handful of people mulling around migrated into the garage.

The garage was dim with just a single line of Christmas lights hanging on the back wall. The cold air leaked inside, leaving people shivering.

The first act was a guy who goes by Marty McFly. He’s a member of a band from Columbus called The Emperor Chaz, who describes their sound as neo-soul and hip-hop. But that night, sans band members, he performed a solo rap set.

He spat out fast-paced rhymes to a series of backing tracks and beats. As he rapped, he slid his feet effortlessly around the garage floor and twirled the red cord of his microphone in his hand.

There were only about a dozen people in the garage, but almost everyone was nodding to the beat.

His last song began with a backing track that was a remix of the “Seinfeld” transition music, and the hook of the song was a series of “What is it about…” jokes.

It was a hit with the crowd.

“I get a real kick out of the crowd jumping up and down, moshing, just dancing around.”

***

Maddie is a senior, but started going to house shows during the spring semester of her freshman year. One of her friends introduced her to the scene, and it drew her in.

“I was like, ‘Damn, this is a cool spot that isn’t a shitty bar Uptown,’” Maddie said.

For one, she likes the music at the shows better than what they play at the bars. But at house shows, she fits in with a crowd of people who stand out at Miami.

“It’s all the weirdos coming together under a big music umbrella.”

It was at these shows where she met Rebecca Sowell, who was in charge of booking shows before she graduated last spring.

The summer before Maddie’s junior year, she saw a band perform and knew the guys from high school. She really liked their music, so she asked Rebecca if she could book them for a show. Not only did Rebecca say yes, she asked Maddie to help her with some of the bookings that fall.

By the spring of that year, Rebecca handed over the job to Maddie completely, and she booked all of the shows that semester.

***

In the half hour break between Marty McFly and the next act, the house filled up. It was just past 10 p.m. — late enough for people to begin their night, but early enough to catch them before it’s time to go to the bars or wherever their night takes them.

The next band was Wicked Messenger, a five-person rock band from Columbus, Ohio, which had just released an EP a few days ago.

Thirty-five people crowded into the garage for their set. It was full, but not packed to the point of feeling like you needed to fight for space. People stood shoulder to shoulder in loosely defined rows. A kid in a hockey jersey stood beside a tripod near the front to film the performance. Maddie stood in the front like she was leading the pack, but probably mostly because she was one of the shortest people in the room.

A fog machine released a plume of smoke into the garage — far more than the handful of Juul smokers could ever puff out of their mouths — marking the beginning of Wicked Messenger’s set.

The frontman thanked Lexi, one of the girls who lived at the house, and her roommates for hosting the night’s show, and in return, Lexi shouted happy birthday. The frontman turned 22 that day, so the crowd broke into an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” while his bandmates played along.

After playing a few more songs, the drummer took his shirt off.

Their last song was the band’s rendition of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. The drummer started chanting, “A pirate’s life for me,” and the whole crowd followed along, building up to the iconic riff.

One guitarist bent his knees and raised his hands up. When the beat dropped, and he swung his arms down, just about everyone in the garage started jumping.

The bass vibrated the walls and your insides.

The garage seemed too small to contain the energy inside.

“To be able to provide a space for people that are a little different and for them to feel comfortable and invited … that makes me feel good.”

***

Maddie tried to book bands who have a variety of different sounds. Rebecca was partial to shoegaze music—a subgenre of alternative rock that’s mellow and almost dream-like. Maddie doesn’t mind that type of music, but it’s not quite her thing. Instead, she’s partial to garage rock, punk, pop, funk—just any music that gets people moving.

“I get a real kick out of the crowd jumping up and down, moshing, just dancing around,” she said. “That gets me energized and I feel like people have a good time when they’re dancing. So I try to find bands that are more upbeat, so not necessarily screaming in your face, but just bands that are more upbeat that people wanna dance to.”

Occasionally, bands would come to her and ask to play a show, especially once more people knew her as the girl who books house shows. But mostly, Maddie scouted out bands herself.

She had attended her fair share of live music events in the Cincinnati area, and if she saw a band she liked, she would go up and ask them if they would be interested in playing in Oxford. But a lot of her scouting happened over social media.

“I stopped using Facebook years ago, but I use it a ton now for bands because everyone has Facebook Messenger, every band has a page.”

She would look at other venues — mostly bars and clubs in Cincinnati — on social media to see what bands they were booking, then look into those bands to see if there were any she wanted to bring to Oxford.

She scheduled about two shows each month, about one every other week — infrequently enough where there would still be some novelty to each one, but often enough where people wouldn’t have to wait too long if they missed one.

***

At the end of Wicked Messenger’s set and after a lengthy applause, everyone flooded into the house to escape the cold. About half of the crowd lingered inside while the other half left through the front door and into the night.

Maddie sat in a chair with the jar of cash resting in her lap as she flipped through dollar bills, counting up the night’s total.

In the past, the majority of the shows were donations only. But Maddie was adamant about charging a cover so she could give the bands something in return for performing. Last year, she lost a venue that had hosted several shows in the past because they said they weren’t comfortable charging a cover.

“I personally feel shitty if I don’t [charge a cover],” she said. “If you have just donations, people don’t like to give a lot of money, and if I give a band $10 for coming from who knows how far away, I would feel like crap.”

During the downtime, I stood leaning against the back of the couch people-watching, and occasionally typing some notes on my phone to make myself look busy.

Michael, who I met outside when I first got to the house, came up to me, and we spent a few minutes raving about Wicked Messenger’s performance.

A few moments later, a girl carrying a large White Claw can sat on the couch behind me. I recognized her as the girl who I smiled at during the last performance after we made random eye contact.

“We were standing for a long time, man!” she said, plopping down on the couch. I agreed with her — my feet had gone numb from the cold — and she pushed a blanket aside to make room for me to sit next to her.

She is a graduate student from Ohio State University studying optometry and made the two-hour drive from Columbus to see Wicked Messenger perform. She has known the lead singer since she was seven. He’s like a little brother to her. She’s also been dating one of the guitarists for six years.

She was eager to tell me about her life. Then she asked me questions about my major and my year in school, and about journalism and what I liked to write about. She was more bubbly than I am at my most outgoing, and I appreciated that about her. I appreciated the fact that sparking conversation with strangers wasn’t completely lost here.

***

It was past 11:30 by the time Fycus, the last band of the night, started their set. There was no loud announcement to mark the beginning — just Maddie and a few other people disappearing into the garage.

Practically no one was in the garage, especially compared to the crowd that was here for Wicked Messenger. Many had since left the house and moved on with their night.

Marty McFly, the members of Wicked Messenger and the home’s residents made up most of the crowd.

photo by Bo Brueck

Fycus’s opening number was instrumental. They’re a group from Cincinnati that describes its sound as indie garage rock. It’s in a similar vein to Wicked Messenger’s sound—rock, but not in a heavy-metal type of way. But there’s more of a dream-like quality to Fycus’s music.

A group of three were dancing in the corner—not just bobbing their heads, but really dancing.

I’m not much of a dancer, especially when I’m sober and don’t know anyone in the room. So I stood near the back and just watched their slightly uncoordinated movements.

But it was hard to hide in a room with only a dozen people. The girl who I talked to on the couch saw me and reached her hand out, then wrapped her arm around me when I walked toward her. I started to dance along with her, Marty McFly and the members of Wicked Messenger.

Something about the company made any fear I had of potentially embarrassing myself disappear. Their energy was truly contagious.

Soon enough, everyone was dancing.

Fycus had performed at an Oxford show about a month before. Maddie usually wouldn’t book the same band twice in one semester, but after one group canceled on her, she asked them to come back because of the energy they had brought the previous time. Fycus’s music wasn’t particularly fast-paced, but there was something about it that managed to get the whole garage moving.

It only got colder as the night continued, but between songs, people ran inside to toss their jackets on the nearest chair. Dancing, it turned out, was a very effective way to keep warm.

Strangers grabbed each other’s hands and swung each other around.

The guys of Wicked Messenger started a conga line and stumbled around the garage, gripping the shoulders of the person in front of them.

The conga line morphed into a can-can kick line, as they wrapped their arms around each other and kicked their legs up to the beat.

People closed their eyes as they swayed back and forth, holding their drinks up to the ceiling.

Maddie turned around from her spot in the front to see everyone behind her twirling around and dancing with their hands up in the air.

She smiled. Then she joined in.

She got worried when she saw over half the crowd leave after Wicked Messenger, but at the end of the day, she’d rather have a few people really getting into the music than a large crowd just nodding their heads.

Maddie isn’t a musician herself. She’s a sociology major and doesn’t have any immediate plans to go into the music industry after graduating college. She simply loves live music and loves bringing people together.

“To be able to provide a space for people that are a little different and for them to feel comfortable and invited… that makes me feel good,” Maddie said. “That is why I do this… I just want people to have a good time, that’s all.”

When Fycus finished their last song, the echo of the last note faded into the small crowd’s clapping and cheering for an encore. Between it all, I saw Maddie turn to her friend, beaming.