When my friend, director and photographer Rob “Whitey” McConnaughy, first told me about a band in Portland that he was into who sorta sound like the Jesus Lizard, I was immediately interested—Whitey knows I like the Jesus Lizard very much. Unfortunately, this band Whitey likes is called Help, and I recognized immediately how that could be problematic: One can’t just type “Help” into a search engine and expect anything more than a “Who’s on First?” routine:
“How can I help you?”
“Okay, can you be more specific about what you need help with?”
“I need help finding Help!”
Help might as well not be online because they’re nearly impossible to find (a Beatles cover band named Help! is much more aggressive with their SEO strategies), which, given what I now know about Help, is probably intentional. They seem suspicious of technology and are outspoken adversaries of capitalism, consumerism, data tracking, “evil machines and systems,” and anything else that contributes to this fucked up dystopian nightmare we’re mucking about in—we need help and Help are trying to help in their own little helpful way. (1 do hear a hint of the Jesus Lizard in their music, incidentally, and that helps me.) I’d love to attempt to describe what their deal is, but to be congruent with the spirit of our subject, which is DIY music and community autonomy, we’re going to try to let the individuals who make up this scene do as much of the talking as possible here. This, for instance, is a sampling of how Help—Ryan Neighbors (guitar/vocals), Morty (bass/ vocals), and Bim Ditson (drums)—describe themselves on their Bandcamp page:
HELP refuses to bow to a world where the counterculture has been nullified by corporatism and surveillance capitalism.
HELP’s beliefs: Remove fear from decision making. Act in defiant joy. Refuse to dominate others. Do not hoard the gifts of the universe. The future is uncertain. Ends don’t justify means. Solidarity now. Class war now!
HELP is the frenzied sound of a broken and collapsing society.
Based on their philosophy, it should come as no surprise that Help approach performance and distribution of their music in a way that isn’t completely reliant on the mainstream music industry. They’re no strangers to putting on generator shows, for instance. Generator shows, for those who don’t know, are unsanctioned, usually illegal “concerts” that take place in clandestine locations (read: abandoned, neglected, uninhabited areas on the outskirts of society) where all the instruments, amps, PAs, lights, etc. are powered by a portable generator. The music is generally “heavy”—punk, metal—but other genres aren’t unheard of. Generator shows are by nature raw and dirty, but fans say they’re more pure, more fun, than any show at a traditional venue. Generator shows are about the music, not the money; they’re for the people, not the profit.
“I was drawn to these generator shows because of the kids who are doing them,” Whitey says. “The whole idea is so DIY and punk as fuck, and I love that. These bands truly create something out of nothing by throwing these shows. It reminds me of the ’80s hardcore scene in D.C. that I grew up in. It felt like something that was uniquely ours, and that’s how these kids feel about their scene now. They’ve proved they don’t need to be at the mercy of venues and booking agents to pick their music for them.”
Generator shows are not new, but they’ve enjoyed a noticeable resurgence in popularity of late. Maybe they’ve become more visible because of social media. Maybe it’s because the kids are rebelling (again) and they’re sick of the commodified garbage that’s being peddled to them. The music industry is out of touch, as it always is, and the kids are sick of this shit, as they always are, and the result is artists turning to more direct, DIY strategies for performing and distribution—as they always do. The music industry may fancy themselves musical gatekeepers, but the kids always decide what’s cool.
I’d like to publicly call out and challenge the Dandy Warhols to play a generator show. Cowards.
“I feel like this [past] year in Portland, generator shows became a thing,” Bim Ditson, Help’s drummer, tells CREEM. “It has always been something that people did here and there, but I feel like [in summer 2022] it had its own set of venues in the same way that any new scene would. It’s also an OLCC [Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission] thing: A lot of these kids are not 21, so they :an’t go to shows here, so they’re like, ‘Well, shit, we don’t want to go to your stupid venue where everything’s about selling beer. We want to play music, so that’s what we’re going to do.’”
The COVID-19 quarantine was also a factor in the recent resurgence of generator shows, because it’s a factor in every aspect of our current lives, as Laura, a Portland resident and activist, explains: “The quarantine helped push these shows into the [BLM] protests. All these kids were stuck inside; then the protests started, and it’s like, okay, how do I make a community out here? So they’re doing a lot af benefit shows, mutual aid shows, and straight-up protest shows. They made their community in the streets, and then they started playing music to keep the joy going.”
But even now that we’re beyond the lockdown, disenfranchisement and restrictions are still in place for a lot of music fans who are obstructed from experiencing live music.
“It’s a space for the people who don’t have other spaces,” Bim says simply. “That’s why [generator shows] are happening. It’s for people who are not allowed to go to bars aecause they’re too young, or it’s for people who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable at a Doug Fir [an expensive music venue in Portland] because of course you’ll feel uncomfortable there unless you’re, like, a banker or something.”
“Portland systematically killed all the all-ages venues a long time ago,” Morty, Help’s bassist, says, “before these kids were even around.”
“They’ve never lived in a world where going to a traditional venue is a place that they’re allowed to go, or are welcome at, so of course they’ve created their own way,” Bim adds.
“And kids that age who don’t have 12 fucking dollars can still go out and see some music,” Morty says. “These shows are usually free; sometimes there’s a donation, but usually you just give that to the touring band if you can. Generator shows prove you don’t have to do the regular show formula because it’s more about having fun than it is about being a band that makes money—which is fading ever more as a possibility for most people anyway. I’d like to publicly call out and challenge the Dandy Warhols to play a generator show. Cowards.”
“Yeah,” Bim says, “they cower as their city crumbles before their eyes.”
“Let’s see the Decemberists do a generator show,” Morty continues.
“They won’t do it, they can’t sell any children’s books at one of those,” Bim says, laughing.
“My hands are cold and I can’t make bags of money” Morty whines while rubbing his hands together.
“Who else can we challenge?” Bim wonders. “Modest Mouse.”
“Yeah,” Morty agrees, “let’s take the money away and see if Modest Mouse want to play a show for their fans.”
Amid the tiny lakes that forever polka-dot Portland parking lots, Help’s singer Ryan chimes in: “They can certainly ‘float on’ in some of these puddles.”
To show CREEM exactly how it’s done, Help put on a generator show on Nov. 12, 2022, under a collection of overpasses in Portland. They enlisted the, uh, help of a couple other bands, Kill Michael and Common Girl, to round out the lineup.
“I’d say at least 200 people showed up on a very cold and dreary Portland night,” Whitey reports. “It was probably about 35, 40 degrees that night, but there were heaps of kids who were 12 to 16 years old bouncing around with people well into their 40s. I was amazed by the diversity and how many people came out that night, despite it being so cold. The show was incredibly fun, the vibe was raucous, and everyone was stoked and happy to be there.”
Whitey documented the process involved in setting up the show (about two weeks from start to finish), even following the band around as they scouted locations—that’s the kind of hard-hitting journalism we do here. Then he sat down with Help to discuss what goes into throwing a successful generator show.
What kind of equipment do you guys use?
You don’t need fancy stuff to do this. All you need is a couple of power cords, some speakers, a PA—a cheap PA is fine—mics, and maybe some lights. We rarely bring lights, it’s usually a pretty low-budget affair. Most of the time you don’t need them because the show is under a bridge and there’s usually street lights or something around.
What about the generator itself? Is that a Home Depot thing, or where does that come from?
We usually borrow one. Somebody’s dad always has one. If you know three other bands, that’s 15 people, that’s 15 dads, one of them has one. In the past you could steal them from Home Depot using the selfcheckout, but now they lock them up. You could rip one from a construction site, it just depends on your level of ambition. Regarding power: More power is always better, but you can’t always get more power— Morty did a show once just off of power inverters from two trucks that they ran the whole time.
You scouted a lot of places for this. What are you looking for in a location?
We avoid anything with barbed wire around it. Pretty much any place where you have to jump a fence, or break in, you should avoid. You can’t claim that you thought a location like that was okay if they’ve fenced it in and locked it up. Plus, some people won’t go to the show if it seems too difficult to get into or if it’s too sketchy.
Generator shows usually take place in areas that are off the beaten path, or in areas that the law avoids, all prime locations for people lacking a proper place to call home. How do you deal with your houseless neighbors?
It’s kind of a mixed bag, you know? You’re in an area that has been neglected by the establishment, but now, instead of dealing with rules, you have to deal with people. Recently some friends tried to do a show at Speeds [a popular generator location under the Morrison Bridge], and somebody who was camped out there tried to fight them, so the show got canceled. After that, all the bands said that we shouldn’t play there for a while. So if you find a place to have a show, you have to figure out who is there ahead of time and make sure you’re not invading their space. As long as they know ahead of time, they’ll probably be okay with it because you’re not fucking with them. And a six-pack can go a long way.
How do you promote the show and get the word out?
The word spreads fast nowadays; timing isn’t a problem. You only need a few days to get the word out. We recommend not putting the show’s address on posts for the show. The first reason is: cops. The later they find out where it is—if they do—the better chance there’s too many people there for them to shut it down. But if they get there while you’re setting up, the show is canceled. If they get there and there’s 200 people, they usually just hang for 10 minutes and leave. The other main reason is community accountability. If everyone who’s there had to ask one of the bands for the address directly, there’s a way lower chance of there being assholes at the show. Third reason is that it’s just more fun for people to have to figure shit out and get involved. It’s very anti-transactional or whatever. If you are spoon-fed, you forget how to feed yourself. Can you tell by now I’m an anarcho-syndicalist?