The legacy of The Emporium, the only house in Durham to regularly host live music, came to a finale during the dawn hours of Sunday, April 30.
Rico Brea, founder and host of the venue, was sitting with some friends on the roof of his apartment around 7 a.m. when the police showed up. A neighbor had called to complain about the loud music that Brea was blasting out of his guitar amplifier. The following Monday, Brea was evicted from his house and ended up moving in with his girlfriend.
It was hardly the first time he had gotten in trouble with the cops for throwing house parties with live music. At the first Emporium show on Nov. 12, 2016, Brea was charged with hosting an underage drinking party after police identified five minors. But Brea was never deterred from his goal of providing local bands with a place to play music and get paid for it.
“There was nothing (in terms of music venues) close on campus within Durham,” said Brea, a senior at the University of New Hampshire. “I personally wanted to throw house parties, because I don’t really like going to the bars, and I didn’t get invited to parties. So I’d throw my own parties.”
Building a scene
Though not a musician himself, Brea has been a life-long fan of local music. He attended a number of music festivals after graduating from Portsmouth High School, which gave him the idea to start a venue of his own in the basement of his Durham apartment.
“We would always hit up festivals and concerts (together),” said Brian Hunter, drummer for Northern Lights. “We discussed having some kind of place for all our favorite local bands, including mine, to play. I remember me and Rico put the stage together like an hour or two before people showed up the first time.”
“When you see all of your friends, as well as tons of new faces, and everyone is just 100 percent invested in what you have to play, that’s just the best feeling in the world.”
— Jeff Wilson of Dogs That Know They’re Dogs
The venue became known as The Emporium, a name borrowed from a pool hall in the classic 1993 film “Dazed and Confused.” By this spring, The Emporium was hosting parties with live bands nearly every Saturday night. Although the shows were initially free, Brea began charging $5 at the door. He split the money with the bands that were performing.
“(Brea) was great to us,” said Jeff Wilson, singer and mandolin player for Dogs That Know They’re Dogs. “He paid every band mate, and he made a point to do that. We would play at a party either way, but making 50 to a 100 bucks every once in a while was awesome.”
Brea used his share of the cash to pay rent and help pay off the fines he received from law enforcement. The shows became his primary source of income.
“My party fines started to become too much money,” Brea said. “So I started to use my cut of the profit from the parties to help pay my fines. I am a part-time nude model for the art department, but only once or twice a week starting about halfway through the semester. So I don’t have any income for the first half.”
News of parties spreads fast on a college campus, and it was through word of mouth that both students and bands found out about the place. Many regular attendees noted the communal atmosphere that was starting to take root within the local scene, largely due to camaraderie built at the parties.
“I’ve been playing live music for about six years, playing anything from prominent music venues to backyard parties, and The Emporium was just a college musician’s dream,” Wilson said. “All we need is a dinky stage, a decent sound system, and an energetic crowd. When you see all of your friends, as well as tons of new faces, and everyone is just 100 percent invested in what you have to play, that’s just the best feeling in the world.”
“It was cool to see how much my parties were growing, and the culture it created for the live-music-loving hippie community.”
— Rico Brea, founder of The Emporium
On April 22, The Emporium hosted its largest show of the semester, featuring local Newmarket legends Harsh Armadillo.
“It was special for me because I got to be up close and personal with a band I really loved,” Brea said. “And it was cool to see how much my parties were growing, and the culture it created for the live-music-loving hippie community.”
Among local musicians, The Emporium stood out as the only spot in Durham where UNH students and others could see live bands every weekend. Many musicians attested to the efficiency with which Brea managed his venue.
“The Emporium was the only place that was actually organized and that made an effort to conceal the sound a little bit,” said James Timothy Graff, drummer for local bands Plains and Phatt. “The way he would manage the people there was very different from any other house party. No one else sold wristbands, and (Brea) managed to contain the chaos to a certain point.”
Leaving a legacy
Eventually, that point was surpassed. Although the parties never got out of hand or disruptive, they had a tendency to become overcrowded as soon as college kids learned there was a party downtown. One night, the police showed up because of a noise complaint. On another occasion, Brea had to kick everyone out of the house at midnight, but still got fined for the noise.
“When I heard (The Emporium) was getting shut down, I was not surprised at all,” Wilson said. “Every time we would meet up before a show to start setting up, (Brea) was like, ‘What’s up guys? I’m throwing another party ’cause it’s time to pay rent this month.’ That would always be the reason, or to pay off tickets from previous parties.”
“People realized how good that felt, and how important it was for the culture, and I think that’s what made it really tragic when people found out that it was shutting down.” — Sumner Bright of Plains
The Emporium hosted its last show on April 29, the evening before Brea’s arrest and eviction. Durham-based band The Saratoga Radio Show played its first-ever live performance that night and got an extremely positive reception.
“That was the first time I’ve played a big gig while playing my own originals,” said Tim Caloggero, singer and guitarist for The Saratoga Radio Show. “We were bringing our stuff out after we finished, and I couldn’t go two feet without someone stopping me. I was surprised at how well (the music) was received by all walks of life.”
Despite its closing, the legacy of The Emporium lives on in the minds of local UNH musicians, many of whom believe the venue helped revitalize a struggling music scene.
“I hope that it’s just an opening for that kind of stuff,” said Sumner Bright, guitarist and singer for Plains. “People realized how good that felt, and how important it was for the culture, and I think that’s what made it really tragic when people found out that it was shutting down.”
As for Brea, he intends to get involved with band management after graduation. For him, the passion for local music comes before the pay.
“I truly never made a lot of personal profit, which I’m absolutely OK with,” Brea said. “It wasn’t about profit, ever. It was about giving all my friends an opportunity to play shows in an environment where everyone was there to support the local scene. And I would do it all over again.”