Where can you dance to any music you choose?

In the basement, down in the basement

Oh, you got the comforts of home, a nightclub too. —Etta James

This weekend the throngs will decamp for Lollapalooza to experience a vertiginous array of mediocre-to-terrible bands (and a couple good ones) in the company of tens of thousands of half-drunk strangers. Seeing a show outside in the Chicago summer dusk is a welcome reprieve from standing around in a smoky club, but the idea that mega-festivals somehow create ad hoc communities out of their mega-crowds–a meme we probably owe to Woodstock–is ridiculous. The only thing everybody at Lollapalooza has in common is the willingness to be painfully gouged for a ticket. Even crowds that might seem a bit more like-minded (at Pitchfork, para ejemplo) make for a grim and dystopian scene: mini mountains of litter, heinous security, sun-baked Porta-Johns. And when you see bands from hundreds of feet away, they seem unreal–specks on the horizon, or larger-than-life cartoons rendered in Jumbotron pixels and playing hard to the cameraman.

As much as I love being able to eat funnel cake and watch M.I.A. at the same time, it can’t make up for all the things about festivals that are fundamentally wack. This summer I’ve made it my mission to forsake the colossus for basement shows and their near kin, hoping to find exciting new bands and join their micro fan bases.

The first time I saw local songwriter Rollin Hunt, he was wowing a crowd of a dozen or so at Ronny’s, trembling before the mike with his eyelids squeezed shut. “Wow. He’s really special,” I whispered to my friend. “Yes,” she said. “Very.” Hunt was in the middle of a song about going out for a walk and spying on a couple getting hot and heavy in their bedroom. Oh, and antelopes.

Onstage Hunt is terminally shy, like he’s cowering from his own voice–it seems like he’s much more used to doing this sort of thing in private. His small, crackly vocals and the songs’ ramshackle instrumentation constantly get away from each other. For me the mystery of Rollin Hunt is whether he’s oblivious to how wide of the mark he’s gone, how far outside pop convention he is. Is he on this strange path by conscious choice, or did he simply pursue a love for the Beach Boys and 60s girl groups and just happen to produce his savant-garde doo-wop? He’s so freakishly earnest and his songs are so beautifully awkward that it’s hard to believe it’s all part of a deliberately crafted persona.

His self-released ten-song demo, Dearly Honorable Listener, is closer to outsider art than lo-fi indie rock. It’s an incandescent artifact, a marvel of rawness, recorded so poorly that you have to turn your stereo almost all the way up to hear what’s going on–you get about 60 percent background hiss and 40 percent music. Live Hunt is often accompanied by a shambling little backup band, but on disc it’s just him, his not-quite-in-tune guitar, and sometimes a drum machine. (At least I think it’s a drum machine–often it sounds like someone throwing rocks into a bucket.) The songs begin and end in strange places, like he either ran out of tape or started playing without telling whoever was supposed to press the record button. He has a hard time keeping up with the drum machine, which sometimes drops in jarringly in the middle of a verse, and he multitracks vocal harmonies through what sounds like a baby monitor.

Hunt’s ambition as a performer nearly destroys his sweet, fragile little tunes, mostly because it completely outstrips his basic competence–but they end up amazing anyway. His lyrics are crowded with small scenes and unpredictable tangents: one song is about “juice in the air,” another about “George who runs the Holiday Inn.” His genius turn is “Pamphlet,” where he proposes a solution to his relationship problems in a romantic ditty that sounds like a cross between early Smog and a truly touched Frankie Lymon: “I need to make you / A pamphlet / That tells you everything you need to know / About my feelings.” It’s clunky, unpolished, and oddly intimate, and that’s what gives it its magic.

When Screaming Females hit Ronny’s in mid-July, they had a paying crowd of six. I’m not counting the people in the other band or the sound guy, who was playing Tetris on his cell phone. They were halfway through a two-and-a-half-month U.S. tour with stops at plenty of basements and punk spaces–a few days earlier they’d played a house show in Elgin. But though these three under-20 kids from New Jersey are almost entirely unknown, word is spreading fast. Front woman Marissa Paternoster is the teenage girl-guitarist messiah, and miracles and conversions come with the territory–show by show, she’s turning the uninitiated, myself included, into true believers.

We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age of femme shredders (Marnie Stern, Aimee Argote of Des Ark), but Paternoster isn’t waiting around to see if anyone else is following her. On a defiant, punk-fast version of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” she carved into the song until practically the whole thing was a solo. Screaming Females have just self-released their second album, What If Someone Is Watching Their TV?, and it can match any (decent) Dinosaur Jr record, pound for pound, in teen malaise and ripping solos. Paternoster’s got some blues boogie in her riffing, a little Billy Gibbons in her muscular punk. She’s a deft songwriter, but she doesn’t like to let more than a minute or two go by without stepping on a stomp box and firing one off. She ended the set in a cloud of feedback scree, hunched over her guitar and pounding on her pedals with her fists. I don’t think anything like her has happened to punk before, and I’m glad it finally has.

Two weeks ago, the posi-kidcore band Abe Vigoda brought LA’s Evolution Summer scene to a pair of Chicago basements: the first night they shimmified 19 stinky kids and a beer-drunk dog at a party in Pilsen, and the second they did a last-minute set at People Projects as the token dudes at a Ladyfest benefit, playing for maybe 20 people, half of them festival volunteers. In Pilsen they kept it short and sweet, with six songs in less than 15 minutes: “We’ve gotta make it quick before the cops show back up,” explained guitarist/chatterbox Juan Velazquez. The PA kept feeding back and you couldn’t hear the singing, so the band turned off the mikes and just shouted along–none of us really knew how the songs went anyway, and everyone was too busy dancing to care.

The B side of Abe Vigoda’s recent “Animal Ghosts” seven-inch, “All Night and Day,” hasn’t left my turntable since I dropped it on. Their tribal thunk and sideways funk make for a kind of dance punk nobody else has dreamed up yet. Cleanly chiming and almost twee, full of jostling guitars that manage to be both precise and playful, their sound has a kind of cloistered innocence–it knows nothing of disco. Calypso would be more like it, given the deep love these guys have for the woodblock. Abe Vigoda’s antecedents are hard for me to pin down–maybe dub, maybe New Zealand pop, maybe some band they hang out with in Chino that I don’t know about–but no matter how you slice it, their show is a pure, cynicism–destroying good time.

We’re supposed to believe that we’re enjoying some sort of meaningful collective experience at a big festival, with modern rock blaring from a bank of speakers the size of a condo complex. But such a grand scale actually tends to dissolve community–the anonymity and impersonality of an enormous event sometimes even encourages people to act shittier than they otherwise would, since they don’t feel accountable to anyone around them. At a basement show, though, where the bands aren’t whisked to the stage by golf carts to make a thousand dollars a minute, people are gonna get pissed if you leave your chewed-up corn cobs and beer cups lying around. You can smell the band. You can give them seven bucks for a T-shirt and know that the money is going to get them a tenth of the way to Iowa City. In the basement, you can feel the band’s humanity as well as your own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rollin Hunt, Screaming Females, Abe Vigoda photos by Jessica Hopper.