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The local DIY scene's signature act might be Ad Astra Per Aspera, a virtuosic Lawrence quintet that welds minimalist keyboards to furious thrashes. Ad Astra practiced for a year before it played its first gig -- a stark contrast to the old learn-a-chord, gig-the-same-week blueprint that long made punk a forum for enthusiastic amateurs.
The emergence of such challenging acts suggests that punk has come full circle since the days when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols penned rudimentary anthems protesting pretentious prog rock. Now that a generation of Warped Tour ticket buyers considers punk to mean short, catchy tunes, a song with a challenging structure feels like musical mutiny.
"People feel the freedom to express what they want, because they know they won't get laughed out of the building," Galloway says.
Groups such as Soophie Nun Squad and Ad Astra make most venues uncomfortable. The combination of melodically obtuse songs and attempts at audience interaction might intimidate the unprepared or annoy the barstool regulars.
El Torreon's doors are open to these acts, but many of their fans won't step inside. They prefer an unadvertised show in an industrial medical center. Most of them wouldn't drink or cause trouble at El Torreon, but there's a principle involved: They don't want anything infringing on this invigorating sense of freedom.
It doesn't hurt that these shows are all but free. Toth and other independent promoters don't charge admission at the door, though they do occasionally request donations to help touring acts cover transportation costs. Usually, when these basic funds are secured, the solicitation stops. It's essentially a risk-free endeavor financially: If no one shows, nothing is lost, plus you get to see one of your favorite groups play a private show.
"That's the spirit in which the shows are undertaken," Galloway says. "At El Torreon, there's problems because there's the money hurdle to get your foot in the door. You've got to pay for all that stuff somehow. At a house show, you know everyone who had a hand in putting it together. There's no budget, no employees, no stratification."
Toth empathizes with Saunders; he's faced some of the same problems. When he started arranging house gigs, the gatherings were basically respectful. Occasionally, though, underage visitors would drink openly on porches and in front yards. Vandals would scribble graffiti on the host's walls. At one Next Space show, a concertgoer mooned the police, leading to a chain of events that stopped the show before out-of-town headliner Tragedy could play.
"That's punk" was an all-purpose excuse for irresponsible behavior.
Without any staff on hand, Toth attempted to enforce a few house rules so the bands he'd brought to town could play instead of having their shows stopped by police. A laid-back, bespectacled guy with a soft voice, Toth couldn't strike fear into showgoers with his physical presence. He also lacked formal authority, so he appealed to common sense -- with mixed results. For the most part, the kids would acquiesce and throw their drinks in the trash. Others turned on him, alleging that Toth, who doesn't drink or take drugs, was forcing his beliefs on them.
"They can do that stuff at home," Toth says of his critics. "Just stay the fuck away from the show."
Despite all its perks, the alternate all-ages scene could never be the utopia its organizers envisioned.
Saunders stands a few feet away from El Torreon's front entrance, paying Sixer for its July 4 performance. Saunders booked more than 500 shows at El Torreon; this is his last. As he flips bills, he notices kids toting large letters under their arms -- pieces of El Torreon's ransom-letter-style sign -- that, until a few minutes ago, had hung behind the stage. Saunders, who built the sign, sighs but doesn't stop the souvenir thieves.