Wildcats In The FirehouseLocal DIY band renovates historic landmark and saves a scene

I’ve spent the last decade of my life skulking around the fringes of grungy clubs and other rock-type hidey-holes in this town and more than a few other burgs, and one of the few things I never get tired of seeing is the transformative power that a stage and an audience can have on even the most unassuming misfit. There’s nothing like seeing an individual so uncomfortable in his own skin that you start squirming in yours step up to a beer-soaked microphone and turn into the momentary god of the room. The sad thing is, it’s a dying miracle. As popular media becomes ever more over-produced and even Youtube becomes the domain of the beautiful people, the dirty stages of your local dives may be the last space available for real people to make a glorious noise.

Wildcats In The Firehouse

Fire House operator and tenant Nathan Barrett lets out his inner wildcat. Photo by Matthew Waine.

Not that you should expect to have your expectations blown away at the drop of a hat. There’s plenty of crap out there for consumption, too, but I’d slog through all the mediocre shows you can throw at me if it meant I got to see one that made me shout, one that reminded me why I started haunting these spots in the first place. DIY venues used to be great places in Birmingham to mine for this kind of an experience, but sadly two of the best we had, Cave 9 and Greencup Books, both folded in the great music collapse of ’09 that took out City Stages, the Heritage Festival and Beta Fest.

But this isn’t a story about destruction or loss, it’s a story about renewal. Like so many underground efforts, the DIY community here refuses to die. As each venue closes or gets shuts down, the community regroups and moves on. So it has been and so it shall always be, so it was only a matter of time before a new venue surfaced to carry the torch. Sure enough, a stone’s throw from Avondale Park, the heart of DIY beats once again in the historic walls of the Spring Street Fire House.

Built in 1890 to house the horse-drawn fire trucks of the day, the two-story red brick structure at 412 41st St. South has a quaint charm. Its painted red doors recall the colorful trappings of a small-town station, and the old railroad carts behind the building have been converted into garden beds by the current tenants and venue operators Nathan Barrett and Eric Wallace. That’s right, after they acquired the building Barrett and Wallace renovated the second floor and moved in. “One of the coolest things about doing this is getting to say ‘This band is playing at my house.’ That’s really fun,” Barrett says. “It does affect what we do. I try to be very conscious about not overbooking. Ideally we want to do eight shows a month, though this summer we’re doing more, closer to 12.”

Nathan is also the lead singer of local band Wildcat Revival, and I jumped at a recent opportunity to see him perform on his home turf. The usual crowd of pierced and tattooed youth were already milling around the entrance waiting for the show to begin and looking mildly out of place. I find Barrett and ask him if he has trouble getting good turnout. “The community is in a weird place right now because Cave 9 shut down, and everybody got older, so all those kids from Cave 9 got uprooted and now they’re of age so we lost some of them,” he says. “How to get new kids to come is the great debate. It’s important to reach the people we want to reach and to get them here, but is that worth risking being exposed to the people who don’t understand what we’re doing. My band has toured for five years on and off, enough to know a lot of these places around the country disappear fast. Just knowing that makes me cautious about what I tell people, but just this week I made a Twitter and a Facebook page to start putting a little information out there.”

We cut our interview short because the first band’s sound check overpowers my microphone and I head to the nearby Parkside Café for some adult refreshment. When I return, Wildcat Revival is taking the stage, and people are beginning to push their way to the front of the room. Nathan grabs a microphone and turns his back to the audience as the band begins to churn, and there among the peeling plaster and bare-light-bulb ambiance my wish comes true. The sober and earnest intellectual who answered my questions moments ago is beginning his transformation into a snarling, frenetic dynamo. I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but it doesn’t matter because the energy emanating from him is as compelling as it is cathartic. He hunches over and spits his lyrics at the floor, he climbs the risers and yells out to the enthusiastic crowd, he flails about wildly. He is, in a word, alive. And so am I.

For more information and show listings for Spring Street Fire House visit www.myspace.com/springstreetfirehouse or email them at springstreetfirehouse@gmail.com.

Sam George is a staff writer for Birmingham Weekly, concerning himself with popular music and, increasingly, other topics. Send your comments to editor@bhamweekly.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on May 27, 2010.

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