Bands heard through a hole in the wall

By Jessica Kalin

To the average passerby, 106 Seventh St. seems like a typical neighborhood structure.

It is an unassuming, one-story building nestled between houses and the Stop ‘N Shop, 708 E. Lincoln Highway. Aside from the distinctive green door and a rooftop mailbox, signs of creativity are few and far between. Though the outside appearance is unassuming, the inside has hosted some of the area’s most eclectic and original musical moments.

A grassroots campaign has spread interest in the independent venue, which is known by local musicians and concertgoers as the 7th Street Space. When it first opened to the public, no ads were run in local newspapers, and no radio spots were taken out.

“They’ve gotten bands and people through word-of-mouth. Those people bring friends, and if they come once, they’ll come again,” said Gary Butterfield, head of the local Clambassador Comic, which held a one-year anniversary concert for the comic at 7th Street.

Though the venue holds fewer than 100 people, the first shows were less than crowded with roughly a dozen attendants. Today, however, it is common to find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowd. Events such as the annual Halloween Scrambler, which features upwards of 25 different bands, have lasted several hours with a constant influx of attendees.

Alex Fonseca, a 34-year-old shop owner, first rented the building in 2000 for a place to practice his growing interest in electronic music, but it quickly grew into a way to aid the community’s musicians.

“It used to be a guitar repair shop,” said Fonseca, who currently owns Degroovia Guitars, 161 E. Lincoln Highway, and originally shared the 7th Street space with friend Aaron Routson. “We needed a place to record, but we weren’t there for enough time to justify renting it [solely], so we had to find other tenants.”

Since then, 7th Street has been the practice pad for acts including Shuffleplay, The Mutations, Where’s Jimmy K At? and Bicycle Day, among others. Yet, the space’s true claim to fame has come since its transformation from a private studio into a public concert venue.

Matt Dotson, a member of the band Veterans of Flight, was a leading member of DeKalb Musicians United — a group that focused on getting local bands shows at larger venues. The organization was founded in 2001 under the name Experimental Musicians Union and was a campus-recognized organization.

When affiliated with NIU, the group would rent Cole Hall for practices and meetings. However, the group began to fizzle and no longer was recognized as an official club. However, after meeting Fonseca one evening at The House, 263 E. Lincoln Highway, Dotson’s group soon relocated to 7th Street.

“What began as something official gradually became unofficial. [We] just turned into the 7th Street scene,” Dotson said.

Within the first year, Fonseca would pass the primary-renter role to Dotson in order to move from DeKalb and focus on other interests. After the moving to 7th Street, the former EMU began holding regular rehearsals in the space. During Cornfest 2001, Dotson first suggested the idea of public shows. The idea was simple, and the timing was impeccable. Since the boundaries for Cornfest lay virtually at 7th Street’s doorstep, why not try the group’s hand at public shows?

“It’s the old adage of having nothing to do in DeKalb; it was part curing boredom and part a love of music,” said Paul Kim, Dotson’s bandmate.

Today, two and a half years after the first public performance at 7th Street, shows are scheduled by Mark Nichols. After moving to the area two years ago, Nichols took over the duties as the booking agent.

“At first, I would just e-mail bands I liked and friends of mine,” Nichols recalled. “But now, people contact me and want to play here.”

What began as an underground, informal operation has stayed true to form — mostly. The venue still relies heavily on the word-of-mouth promotional forum it began with. However, individual acts have started promoting the location on Web sites and in publications such as The Onion. Local DeKalb label Scratch and Sniff Records also has used the space to record several albums.

On average, 7th Street hosts one show a month. Thus, the venue accepts donations and uses the money made at its shows to pay rent and for general maintenance, while passing a large share of the income along to any band on the bill that currently is touring.

The space has drawn some interesting and acclaimed acts. Nationally touring performers, such as K Records’ artist Old Time Relijun, have stopped at 7th Street. The growing popularity of the venue has created a buzz about the town. Relijun’s labelmates Wolf Colonel and Dennis Driscoll each have performed in DeKalb within the last year. The founder of K Records, the legendary Calvin Johnson, is slated for a DeKalb show in the near future.

“It may help the other venues wise up and open their doors to lesser-known acts,” said Chris Otepka of Troubled Hubble, who has performed at 7th Street as a solo performer. “The vibe of the place is warm like a living room. It was freezing out that day, and I remember walking into the space and instantly being warmed.”

Nichols agrees with Otepka’s sentiments.

“This makes sure there will always be a place to play,” Nichols said.

— Derek Wright contributed to this story.