Words by Mark Oprea
The death of Kent’s DIY scene and Akron’s saving grace
Marcus Franklin and Trever Fisher sit on the stairs in their house at 121 E. Crain Ave. in Kent. Since October, the two have been hosting live music acts in their home. Photo by Andrea Noall.
It’s a Friday night, and 121 E. Crain Ave. in Kent hums with the sound of jam band funk from snow-dashed sidewalks. The band, Mr. Malarkey, spearheaded by bassist Trevor Fisher, is halfway through its set in the living room. Inside, walls are dotted with tri-color laser lights and dizzying tapestries. A couple sits on the kitchen counter in patent leather boots, as dozens jostle around them. Fisher’s bass rumbles to the upstairs bathroom, where a duo of girls sit leg-up in the bathtub, a Hungry Howie’s pizza box on their laps. People start to leave because there is no room in the foyer.
Days later, Fisher—better known to friends and confidantes as Fish—walks through his living room in a loosely-worn flannel and cargo shorts, stepping over effects pedals and tangled instrument cables. One of his cats, Zeus, jabs at a cord like a toy. Fisher kneels over and picks him up, and one can tell instantly he is a friend to all. The 21-year-old recaps the January show with a nostalgia that flicks his pencil mustache upward.
“I felt like a fucking rockstar,” he says. “There were people raging in my house and literally screaming like it was a concert. And I was like the whole time, ‘I’m just in my house doing my thing.’ ”
His house, known by the moniker One Two One, has held the status as a DIY venue since last August, when Fisher moved in with fellow roommates Marcus Franklin and Brant Lally, men with hearts set on musical notoriety. Since then, local rock bands like Escape Pod, The Trunks and singer-songwriter Julia Kate Davis have played full-on living-room sets for hundreds. In his go-getting tone, Fisher lays out One Two One’s philosophy: “If you don’t have a place to play, then I’m going to create it.”
Fisher’s Do-It-Yourself routine isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Facebook has allowed any common joe to easily convert his or her basement or living room into a full-on venue, complete with merch tables and bottom-shelf beer. Fanboys and know-hows—mostly straight, white males in their twenties—flock to sites like DoDIY and Fanswell posing as booking agents pro bono. Without any high stages, a DIY show is a familial affair, a celebration ripe with the scent of underground musk, the sweet stench of bodies, all tied together by an unapologetically loud noise. It’s a scene for the people, by the people.
Yet in Kent, the spirit is only partially alive. Straight-up house venues—opposed to “total chancers” or spontaneous shows—are sparse. Housemates graduate and move out, leaving silence where decibels of guitar sounds once hummed. It’s this void, Fisher says, that he’s aiming to fill.
After meeting rap junkie Franklin—a musician going by the stage name BluuDolo—the two found synergy between alike aspirations. They both came from unfulfilled academic pasts and wanted personal growth: Fisher through jazzy funk, Franklin through hip-hop poetics. The musical idealists both took a year off of school, along with “nomadic tendencies,” to furnish a hub in their own hands. Come October 2014, their living room stage was set. They aptly called the show “BluuFish.”
With a trite, developing network of Kent connections, BluuFish opened on Oct. 2 with shaky legs. The congenial Fisher enlisted four groups, including “Queen of Openers” Davis, acoustic artist Hendermeimer and Chicago folk group The Wild Family, all without definite pay. With only a dozen to show up at first, Fisher was anxious. It wasn’t until later in the night when local band Sales took over the main stage. “It was right when they started performing,” Franklin says. “Right then and there I knew that we had to keep going along with these shows. It was that electrifying.”
Fisher leapt up from his couch to agree. “I had people coming up to me afterwards,” he says, “asking, ‘When are you going to have the next one?’ ”
This was Fisher’s spark. He took the following winter to draw up plans for what would be BluuFish’s rolling sequel. He entered the guise of an entrepreneur, posted flyers on coffeehouse cork-boards, “covered his bases” by sweet-talking his neighbors. He even bolstered a four-man house-show staff, called them the Entertainment Department. The hype was so anticipated for BluuFish 2 that Fisher prepared two photographers to shoot the bands. Stage lighting was the final touch.
And all for a reason. DIY shows, agreed on by the programmers of One Two One, have an ineffable vibe that keeps adherents pouring through the door. “People, I think, are just more open to being themselves at a house show,” Fisher says. “It’s an infectious thing.”
After a 25-minute drive west on Interstate 76, one of the most active scenes in Ohio operates in only a few hands. Its houses are DIY veterans, with esteem represented by the show flyers that lather their walls. With, on average, shows occurring at least twice a week, the Akron milieu undeniably has the upper hand among its neighbors. It even has its own Facebook page.
For the past four to five years, houses like The Fool House and It’s A Kling Thing! have represented Akron Hardcore Punk to plug-in-and-play garage rock. At the newly-formed LICH (Low Impact Community House), folk punk duos strum after local poets read from chapbooks, as a chicken coop functions out back. These houses, on average, welcome hordes of people, many regulars a part of Akron circles, others not. Eddie Gancos, head of The Fool House, says his band’s December record release party brought over one hundred.
Yet, notoriety doesn’t come without some sort of establishment.
It’s a Kling Thing!, now run by 24-year-old network engineer Tyler Brown, is a collaborative deal, often running with help of Gancos and company. During its seven-year operation, and once hosting Kent band Annabel, the Kling Street house—a block away from UA’s Buchtel Field—has been carried across state boundaries by touring acts. Many have left their literal marks in its interior (“KLING OWNS MY SOUL,” someone writes on the fireplace mantle). At a recent show in February, in a basement not much bigger than a dorm room, Rob Anders, lead singer for Rochester, N.Y., group Until We Are Ghosts, shared respect for the venue after ending a circle pit created minutes before. “All I heard about the place”—he pauses to take a breath—“was that it was a wild ride.”
What comes along with a reputation, for Gancos, makes it a blessing and a curse. Being “on a mission” to promote local and touring bands, the Fool House manager, along with DIY partner Brown, doesn’t have any for-profit agendas. All bands, they say, are given a place to sleep, spaghetti dinners to eat, coffee for breakfast. And for pay, Gancos—with side-slicked hair and bomber jacket—walks around with a donation mug among guests. On average, he collects $60 a night.
“It’s not that hard of a thing to do that I think I deserve money,” Brown says. “We do it for the bands mostly.”
Indie-punk band The Foxery, from Louisville, Kentucky, performs before bands Tir Asleen, Peacekeeper, Real Feels and Backtalk at It’s A Kling Thing!, a venue in the basement of a house in Akron, on Mon., Feb. 23, 2015. Photo by Graham Smith.
With its own ebbing-and-flowing music scene, lines of college housing and downtown hubs, the question ultimately follows: Why not Kent?
Multiple Akron DIY frequenters, including Brown, Gancos and LICH owner Ryan Carpenter, say uniformly that their knowledge of any Kent DIY scene was near zilch (vice versa for Fisher and Franklin). This musical dominance throughout the years has turned Rubber City into a sort of DIY monopoly in the area. One of Brown’s roommates, Kent State graduate student Jacob Church, moved to Akron partially for that reason.
An often-cited scapegoat, especially for Kent DIYers, is the difference in police response to noise complaints. While Kent charged 171 residents with unlawful noise in 2014, the Akron Police Department doesn’t even bother recording complaints—especially being a city with 23 murders in 2014, according to the Akron Police Department. As far as city allowance, Kent noise ordinance code 509.12 allows police to shut down any unlawful noise, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., if audible past the property line. Akron code adds 80 feet.
“But we’re still going to be reasonable,” Lieutenant Jim Prusha of the Kent Police Department says. “We’re not going to give a person a ticket just to give them a ticket. We have plenty of other things to do.”
While it’s nearly impossible to separate house-show violations from run-of-the-mill violations, more houses in Kent have been dissuaded from the DIY status of their Akron counterparts. Andy Perkins, a senior business management major at Kent State, used to rent a house on Crain Avenue a stone’s throw away from Fisher’s One Two One, dubbed “The Crain Commonwealth.” After about 15 police visits, and more than $1,000 in fines, Perkins decided DIY status wasn’t feasible, and shows came to a halt.
Despite the inevitable presence of the law, Gancos and Brown, as with newcomers Fisher and Franklin (who haven’t had any run-ins, yet), are unshaken by police shutdowns. Gancos says that, rather than Akron PD, he’s more concerned with houses crumbling due to city-led expansion. He says the University of Akron has had its eyes on Kling Street for years.
As a matter of fact, one of the most prominent DIY venues in Akron history is still talked about at Kling! and Fool House gigs, always in a tone of memorium. It once brought UA students and Kent bands under the same colorful roof. It evolved from being a rat-infested “squat house” to the cheerfully painted venue adjacent to Highland Square. It was known as The Blueberry House.
After 26-year-old Kenneth Lee Averiett took over 21 N. Highland Ave. near the end of 2012, he aimed to remove its “campy” stigma its previous owners let slide. He got serious about venue status, about making the house “clean and livable.” He repainted its walls a goldenrod yellow, hung tapestries and bike tires. He updated its defunct Facebook page and entered it in the Akron Porch Rokr Association. Bands like The Hobs and Sway Cherry Sway were raised in its basement, others in its living area. Above all, Averiett held onto a mantra of respect while encouraging self-expression—all with, he says, “an air of professionalism.”
“I still wanted to keep it as informal as possible, because I wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” he says. “I didn’t want to make people feel they weren’t cool enough to be at a house show—especially at a place like the Blueberry House.”
For the nine months under Averiett’s leadership, the house endured its golden age. Averiett managed to maintain determination while dealing with occasional theft—his $600 DSLR and a custom-made road bike were both lifted—and once fighting a kleptomaniac “off with a hammer.” When The Trunks played their only gig at the house in 2013, singer Nathan Brahce recalled most of the night “a disaster” until Averiett was able to find a workable mic. “Despite that,” guitarist Kyle adds, “I had always wanted to play The Blueberry at that point, ever since I heard about it in way back in high school. It was cooler than anything else.” It’s now one of their most memorable shows.
In 2013, the city of Akron had the strip of homes on North Highland slated for demolition. The big blue house on the end of the street was destined to become a parking lot.
Kenneth Lee Averiett stands in an abandoned lot where The Blueberry House once stood. “It was anarchy,” Averiett says. “Everyone put in what they could into the house without expecting anything back.” Photo by Andrea Noall.
Before the protesters assembled, a rift formed between Averiett and Ray Nemer, the last owner of the strip of homes on Highland. Blueberry had slouched again toward “squat” status: vandalized walls, broken plumbing, barely working electricity. Shortly before its razing, the city of Akron condemned the house “unlivable.” Come June, protests led to shouting matches, dividing the block, many using Blueberry and the “Big Ash Tree” in its backyard as symbols of defiance. Fighting aside, Averiett knew destruction was inevitable. “I made amends with the idea that I would eventually have to leave,” he says.
In a last-minute effort, on June 9, 2013, Averiett hosted his official last show on N. Highland Avenue. Nearly 150 people assembled in the name of Blueberry’s memory, community and counter-cultural liberty. A farewell salute to the house’s legacy was written in red on white brick walls like a prayer:
We played here, we danced here. We puked here. But we can still play, and dance and puke in the name of the Blueberry House.
Averiett and his roommates were evicted that July. The house was brought down a year later.
Yet with the death of one of the most iconic DIY houses came new life. Ever since The Blueberry House’s reign, four new houses, Averiett says, have “risen” in its place—one recently, called The Shell House, is just a 10-minute walk from N. Highland Ave. Who knows how long it will last.
For proof that Kent had any notion of a lively DIY scene, all one has to do is look back a little more than two decades, to a humble pockmark of an art gallery that once claimed the address 257 N. Water St. Kent punks knew it as The Mantis.
Owned by a ragtag house painter named Sam Ludwig, the two-faced Mantis—children’s theater by day, punk cabaret by night—began in 1989, and quickly became the nucleus of Kent DIY. Garage bands like Kill The Hippies and Teeth of the Hydra were raised in its quarter, along with the offspring of live music junkies. Mixtapes were passed around with joints and Black Label beer. A 2002 article in The Burr titled “Playing Mantis” labeled the venue as Kent’s home of “decadent destruction.”
Joe Dennis, former frontman for The Party of Helicopters, recalls the Mantis era of Kent DIY as if talking about a long lost friend. “There was something really intimate about our scene,” he says. “It felt like it was hidden. When I discovered it, I felt like I had walked in on a secret.”
Living in a house on Lake Street—aptly called The Lake Street House—Dennis, along with POH guitarist Jamie Stillman, covered the local circuit and hosted the band’s own gigs. Touring acts and venues alike used a San Francisco-published resource guide called “Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life” to schedule gigs, another of Dennis’ houses listed among them. Apart from Ludwig’s hub, this house shuffled through nominal generations as the “cabiny-feeling” C-3P0 Rio House, The Harriet the Spy House, and the House of Couch, named because, Stillman says, “they had a lot of couches.”
As Ludwig rode on with Mantis management, The Party of Helicopters toured the U.S. and Europe’s DIY circuits, booked shows sporadically by pay phone, crossing fingers venues existed upon arrival. With 30 DIY tours in sum, the Helicopters covered the entire pallet: an abandoned bomb shelter, a 14-year-old girl’s birthday party, a Bonanza Steakhouse, where, Stillman says, they “had to move a salad bar to make room.” If it had walls and electrical outlets, POH had it marked. They weren’t signed until 2002—but it didn’t matter. “To us, every show that we played was awesome,” Stillman says.
As The Party of Helicopters were out touring, back in Kent, things were rolling. A 15-year-old student at Firestone High School was playing his first set of shows at the Mantis. He collected Party of Helicopter albums, hung around with the likes of Stillman and older Kent punks. This kid, Patrick Carney, is now 34 and in one of the most successful rock bands of the century. In a 2013 interview done by Kent historian Jason Prufer, the drummer for the Black Keys admits his admiration for his roots in Tree City.
“Back at the time there was nothing like Kent in Akron at all,” Carney said. “Because Kent is a smaller town more geared towards students, it’s always been a place that’s kind of inherently cooler than Akron. That’s how we viewed it back then.”
Come 2002, when Carney was plotting out his first tour with guitarist Dan Auerbach, he looked to a mentor to drive The Black Keys’ van to Seattle after the release of “The Big Come Up.” Tired from stagnation and reasonably broke, Stillman accepted. The Party of Helicopters disbanded soon after.
With its penchant for anarchy, Ludwig moved his Mantis shakily into a new era. Things were changing. Social media were replacing “BYOFL” and spontaneity as DIY booking agents. Houses were vacated, others demolished. In March 2003, after a month-long dispute with Kent authorities, the Mantis closed its doors for good, marking the end of an era.
“Kent kind of lost that part of its identity at that time,” Dennis says. “People moved away. Scenes were slightly less clique-y and also less cohesive. Bands were promoting on Myspace. It was just a weird time.”
Both Stillman and Dennis were “burned out” anyway, after a ten-year stint as DIY kings. When Stillman had a kid with his then soon-to-be wife, Dennis knew any chance at a POH reunion was rare. Still, their dues had been paid.
In the meantime, a previously dry, homegrown music scene was brewing in the county over. Art galleries were starting to catch on, along with UA students renting out two-story houses. Stillman claims Carney’s band had something to do with it.
“I still wonder about that to this day,” he says.
Despite the subzero temperatures, ice-slicked roads and byways, Averiett packed the top floor of his new duplex on Oakdale Avenue for a recent Valentine’s Day show. Records line the walls above bronze Buddhas and string lights, reminding one of the house on Highland. Friends shake Averiett’s hand like he’s their idol. Gancos strums on an acoustic Ibanez on the couch, while girls in neapolitan hair gawk from the audience. After Lo-fi group Pizza Ghost begins playing electric, an excitable guest yells into Averiett’s right ear: “I don’t know how you still do it, man! I don’t know how you do it!”
Someone mentions the comment to Averiett. He grins from under black-framed glasses. It’s clear by the look on his face that he’s heard it all before.
“It is what it is,” he says.
Both Gancos and Brown—who were both present for the first time at an Averiett show—contemplated booking one of the night’s bands at one of their houses. They’ll decide which house when the time comes.
As Fisher and Franklin plan their next big night at One Two One, the city of Kent waits. He first wants to grow his band, play house gigs in nearby places (one in Miami, Ohio, recently). He wants to experience Akron’s scene, meet Averiett and the DIY crew and for One Two One to be Kent’s “Blueberry House.” He’s even planning a “Best of Kent” concert this April, he says, before it’s too late. Once Fisher’s lease ends, the house on E. Crain Avenue will be up for sale.
But he, of course, isn’t worried. He’ll move onto another.
“People might not remember who Fish is, they might not remember who Bluu is,” he says. “But at least they’ll remember the house.”