D.C. DIY Space Dougout Goes (Somewhat) Professional

By Ron Knox

D.C. house venue Dougout straddles the line between DIY and professional.
D.C. house venue Dougout straddles the line between DIY and professional. Ron Knox

For two years, shows at D.C. house venue Dougout have been as straightforward as they can be for a DIY operation: Someone books a show. The crowd shows up. The bands play. People typically go home happy.

But what happens when one of the city’s smallest DIY show spaces begins hosting bands that could fill a club? It’s forced to make tough but necessary compromises.

It’s a Tuesday evening in February, and the Dougout—an unfurnished basement in a group house off of Rhode Island Avenue NE—is mostly empty. It doesn’t look like much, but over the last two years, the house has become one of the city’s premier underground music venues. That’s why it’s being nudged into a more professional setup. The guy sitting on a barstool near the door is a sign of the space’s growth. So are the list of names in his hand and the paper wristbands he’s looping around the wrists of people now trickling through the basement’s exterior door.

Showgoers are here to see a punk-rock band called Iron Chic, which had sold out Brooklyn show space The Acheron, a venue three times bigger than Dougout, just five days before. At last year’s Fest festival in Florida, the band filled a 1,000-person venue to capacity. The Dougout looks like it can fit 60, maybe.

The Iron Chic gig ran the risk of repeating a bad situation the Dougout had seen just two months earlier.

“The Speedy Ortiz show was a [disaster],” says Geoff Shobert, one of the house’s three residents.

Shobert is talking about a show the Massachusetts punk band played at the house in January. Speedy Ortiz is a cocktail shaker of things generally popular in punk rock at the moment: low-fi distortion with throwback, early ‘90s indie sensibilities and a lead singer with a big, sugary voice. Having played basements like Dougout for a few years, Speedy Ortiz is hurtling toward fame: A week before the Dougout show, Entertainment Weekly’s music blog premiered the group’s new single, and the band appeared in Rolling Stone multiple times last year. Speedy Ortiz might still like playing basements, but at this point, it’s probably too popular to do that—at least safely.

When Speedy Ortiz played Dougout, the band drew enough people to fill the basement twice. Inside, people were pressed chest-to-back, Shobert says, and latecomers spilled into the yard and alleyway.

“There was no way we could let anyone else in,” Shobert says. “We were turning away our friends. We were turning away people who would come here all the time. And people who had already gotten in weren’t even able to get out. They couldn’t go out and have a cigarette, they couldn’t move. People were kicking on the door, screaming profanities at me and [stuff]. People were trying to bribe me with huge amounts of money.”

Sadie Dupuis, singer and guitarist for Speedy Ortiz, has seen a lot of packed shows in DIY spaces, but none that were “people-were-trying-to-bribe-their-way-in packed,” she says by phone.

The band kicked off a new tour last night at Black Cat after spending January playing shows in places like the Dougout. Before that winter outing, she says, the band was out on a higher-profile tour playing much bigger places. So for January, they booked as many basements, warehouses and other DIY spaces as they could, mainly through personal contacts. That’s how the Dougout show came about: The guys in Grass is Green, who were touring with Speedy, knew the Dougout and set up the show.

Dupuis acknowledges the band is getting bigger, but she says they do what they can to look past the hype and keep playing the kind of venues they prefer. “I think we try to strike a balance,” she says. “We were ready to play in spaces that we feel more comfortable in and feel like home for us.” She says the Dougout seemed like any other DIY show until a few days before, when she began to hear from folks nervous about the number of people who had RSVPed for it on Facebook. More than 200 people said they were going.

Marshall Pearson, Shobert’s housemate, was working the night of the Speedy Ortiz show. He got home after the band’s set, when the crush of people had dwindled to just a few. He says his housemates hated having to turn people away. The whole night “left a bad taste in their mouths,” Pearson says.

With the Iron Chic show already on the calendar, the roommates knew that same situation couldn’t play out again. It’s just too risky. The Dougout has been lucky so far, Pearson says; neighbors have been understanding, and most of its shows have been without incident. But the kind of chaos that characterized the Speedy Ortiz show jeopardizes “the longevity of our space,” Pearson says.

The Dougout made some changes for the Iron Chic appearance, which it projected would be just as big as the Speedy Ortiz show. Using the online Big Cartel system already established by D.C. punk-show promoter and Coke Bust member Chris Moore, the Dougout put a few dozen spots on sale. The show sold out within a few days.

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By Iron Chic’s second song, the space is full, but not packed. The Dougout residents guess that around 20 people with reservations haven’t shown up, probably because of factors like the snowy weather and the night of the week. Compared to the Speedy Ortiz show, it’s calm. Attendees huddle around Jason Lubrano, the band’s stocky singer, and sing along, fingers pointed, pressing their hands against the basement’s low ceiling to keep upright.

Two days later, Shobert says that the turnout was exactly what he wanted. The band left happy; fans shouted along, then had enough space to visit the merch table and buy something. “Honestly, I don’t know if we’ll do the ticketing thing again,” he says. “It was a solution for what it was. It’s not something we want to rely on and do all the time.”

Every show is different, of course. Holly Hunt, an instrumental doom-metal band from Florida, plays the space March 23. No word on whether the house will have people reserve spots in advance. However it works out, the Dougout is now closer to understanding what it needs to do to preserve its DIY ethos and grow at the same time: steer toward better organization, for the good of all involved.

“I think it’s great, honestly,” Dupuis says of Dougout’s development. “I mean, isn’t that kind of the ideal?”