The Bronx is burning…with rock ‘n’ roll

Fans line up outside of the First Lutheran Church in Throgs Neck. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans line up outside of the First Lutheran Church in Throgs Neck. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

At 6 p.m. on a Friday night, hundreds of teenagers and twenty-somethings lined up outside of the First Lutheran Church in the northeast Bronx. Flanked by quiet and residential Baisley Avenue and the busy Throgs Neck Expressway, the eager crowds waited patiently for the white wooden doors on the brick church to open so their Friday night could begin.

The lines weren’t for a church youth group or a retreat, but for a whole different kind of religious experience—a rock concert.

One girl saw Drew Torres, a local singer/songwriter unloading his guitar from the trunk of his car, grabbed her friend and said, “Oh my God! That’s Drew Torres!”

Music fans from all over the Bronx flock to the church, which they affectionately call the FLC, for some music, dancing and a place to see their friends—all 300 of them.

Three weekends a month, Bronx Underground, a grassroots, do-it-yourself music promotion group now in its tenth year, puts on low cost, alcohol-free shows for all ages to promote the burgeoning rock scene in the Bronx. Fans come from all over the Bronx as well as Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“The music scene in the Bronx is vibrant and cutting edge, waiting for the moment where it can explode from the confines of this borough to influence music and new artists nationwide,” said Dave Rose, 31, one of Bronx Underground’s founders.

Drew Torres played a half hour set at the church on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Drew Torres played a half hour set at the church on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

In 2000, Rose, along with Anita Colby, 30, and Adam Fachler, 29, began Bronx Underground as a way to bring local music to Bronx residents. The fact that this movement has lasted 10 years “blows their minds,” Colby said, particularly when these shows are taking place in the same church basement where Rose did Boy Scouts and Colby attended nursery school.

“Adam, Anita and myself were all involved in bands, and had been for a few years,” Rose said. “We had gotten used to being mistreated by management of venues, getting screwed or denied stage time in Manhattan. It was a response to a horrible scene that existed for younger artists at the time.”

The shows also often excluded the younger crowds because most venues require show-goers to be 21 or older.

“We really wanted to bring this music to everyone,” Colby said. “There was a need for a positive place for kids to come hear music.”

So the three pooled their resources and started booking and promoting their own shows.  More than 150 people came to their first show in October 2000 in the City Island Community Center, as unlikely a setting as a Lutheran church. Rock fans were head banging under the City Island Nautical Museum.

On Oct. 8, Bronx Underground celebrated its 10th birthday at the First Lutheran Church with five hours of bands and solo artists in the church basement. An estimated 200 people paid the $9 cover to hear A Moment’s Worth, Frantic Ian, The Kezners, Turns to Fall, Drew Torres, How I Became a Pirate and What’s Your Problem Brian. Musicians watched other bands perform and mingled with the fans while waiting for their turn on stage and munching on birthday cake made by Bronx-based bakery Land of Cake Believe, a business created with the help of the Bronx Underground fan base.

“It’s been a great gathering place for everyone,” said Colby. “Everyone is friends and it’s a very racially diverse group. It’s split 50/50 between male and female. It’s just a way to connect with other people who like the same music you do.”

Fans waiting outside the church for the show to start evoked a more democratic version of the typical high school lunchroom scene. Girls wearing skirts and UGG boots were hugging and chatting with boys in baggy pants and comic book T-shirts. Leather met lace, nose piercings paired with hair bows and tattoos converged with perfectly manicured nails—an eclectic mix of people and styles.

Fans wore birthday hats to celebrate 10 years of Bronx Underground. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans wore birthday hats to celebrate 10 years of Bronx Underground. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

It’s this sense of belonging that keeps fans coming back for more.

“You can’t find shows like this anywhere else,” said Dayna Lugo, 16, of Throgs Neck, who has been coming to the shows for almost two years. “It’s a great place where everyone has the same interests. It’s safe.”  Bags are checked and metal detection devices are used at the entrance to every show.

Providing a safe haven is an essential part of Bronx Underground’s mission.

“We have given kids a comfortable safe place to be themselves, to be away from the pressures of school and family, to allow them to socialize on their own terms, all while promoting the sense that arts and music are important to support and actively participate in,” Rose said.

It’s also a grassroots movement. Bronx Underground promotes itself as “music by the kids, for the kids” and this really resonates with younger audiences.

“The whole scene coming out of the Bronx right now is revolving around the do-it-yourself ethic,” said John Blattner, 17, a self-described lifelong Bronx music fan. “It’s really this whole ‘screw the big labels’ mentality. What these artists are doing are recording music the way they want to, going to local studios, labels, and distributing the music online and locally.” Bands bring CDs to shows or upload their music to iTunes, MySpace or their own websites.

And it’s Blattner’s generation that the Bronx Underground hopes will keep this movement going. Rock, ska, punk and emo are taking the stage in the borough that practically invented modern rap, launching the careers of Big Punisher, Grandmaster Flash and Fat Joe, among others.

“Kids today can’t remember when there wasn’t a great music scene in the Bronx and to me that’s funny because we didn’t have that growing up,” said Colby, who grew up around Throgs Neck and plays saxophone in What’s Your Problem Brian. “It’s only going to flourish from here.”

Bronx Underground sticks to low-cost venues like the church because each show they put on pays for the next. Covers are typically $9 or $10. They have a paid staff of about 20 who work the shows part-time;  the rest of the take goes to sound engineers, the venue and the bands. The church has been their main venue for the last five years; before that, they also put on shows at The Point Community Center in Hunts Point and at Orchard Beach.

All three founders have day jobs. Colby is in market research, Fachler works in sales support in the music industry and Rose is a music teacher at Lehman High School.

Many of the part-timers say they signed up because it’s fun. James Beary, 24, has been supervising shows for Bronx Underground for three years and said it’s the best part-time job he’s ever had. “The scene here in the Bronx is something I never dreamed could happen,” said Breary, who was raised between Brooklyn and Harlem. “It’s like a family. It’s so full of life and I think the most important thing is that it keeps kids off the streets.”

It’s a rock scene that even parents seem to appreciate. Colby said that often when she’s out around town, parents stop her and thank her for giving their kids a safe place to be on a Friday night.

“There’s always going to be people who see groups of teenagers and freak out,” Colby said. “But generally the community is really supportive because they know it’s productive.”

Lugo said her parents let her come to the shows because of their reputation for being safe and well supervised. Each show has 10-15 staff members plus Colby, Rose and Fachler working the door and mingling within the crowds.

“They know it’s what I like and they know I won’t get into trouble,” Lugo said.

It’s this reputation and its popularity with the younger generation that has helped Bronx Underground triple in size over the past 10 years. It went from 150 people at monthly shows to over 300 people at shows three times a month. According to Colby, Bronx Underground has a list of bands waiting to be booked. In the beginning, they heard from  just a handful of bands looking for gigs;  now they’re getting hundreds of emails a month about bookings.

“The last 10 years of rock music in the Bronx has reached beyond anything that came before it,” Rose said. “The number of bands and the amount of support they receive from fans citywide is staggering and I can’t think of any other time where the scene was as strong as it is today.”

Bronx Underground didn’t introduce rock to the borough, but it did nurture the spirit inherited from Bronx rock legends like Paul Stanley of Kiss and Charlie Benante from Anthrax.

Fans danced and sang along while listening to Frantic Ian. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans danced and sang along while listening to Frantic Ian. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

“It feels kind of awkward to claim that we started the movement, because without the bands to build a scene around, there couldn’t have been a movement,” Rose said. “But I really do feel that without the Bronx Underground, the scene would have never moved out of the funk that it was in. I’d be happy with taking 50 percent of the credit. The people writing the music and investing in their art get the other 50 percent.”

Among the musicians, Bronx pride thrives. The bass player for The Kezners wore a T-shirt that said, “Bronx, only the strong survive” when they played on Oct. 8. Could that mean that the Bronx is becoming cool?

“The Bronx Underground is more of a family than a scene to kids like us,” Blattner said. “It tries to bring local artists into the spotlight as the Bronx doesn’t get much recognition in the whole NYC music scene.”