Small groups of punk kids in Vans and Doc Martens huddle in the driveway of a small Tempe house, drum sets and amps stacked in the open garage. A short walk around through the backyard leads to a sliding glass door that serves as the entrance into Tobacco Row, one of Tempe’s many houses that moonlight as concert venues.
Earplugs are a necessity in the small dining room where local and touring bands set up inches away from the assembled crowds.
Kenneth Kite, the owner and founder of Tobacco Row and an ASU music therapy graduate, said he began hosting shows in his house in order play more shows with his own band.
“I wanted to play shows with my friends, so I booked little bills and did shows with friends at the house,” he said.
He said the house quickly gained popularity and other bands soon wanted to play there, so he started booking shows with bands outside of his immediate circle.
“I don’t book a lot of my own shows anymore,” he said, explaining that most times, people come to him with a pre-booked bill, leaving Kite only to set a date for the show. “I don’t even have to book anybody. I just have to help run the show and give the money to the touring bands.”
Kite said he makes no money off these shows, and the entrance fee is purely donation-based. All proceeds from the show go first to the touring bands and then trickle down to the local acts.
He said the shows he hosts in his home aren’t about making an extra buck or making connections — they're about making friends.
“Friends are a lot more reliable than connections,” he said.
Before coming to Arizona from Oklahoma, Kite said he had no clue that house shows even existed.
“I came here as a freshman and saw the club TUF,” he said. “And I joined that, and I was hooked. I was going to shows every weekend, multiple times a week.”
Going to these shows inspired Kite to throw shows of his own, he said.
“I was like... ‘If we can just do it ourselves, why don’t we?’” Kite said.
As for naming the venue, Kite said a landlord of the venue’s original location peeked over the wall into the backyard and saw it completely littered with cigarette butts and later sent an angry email in which he called the place “Tobacco Row.” Kite’s response was to name the venue Tobacco Row, and even with its new location, he decided to keep the name.
Matt Aldawood, the lead singer of Troubled Minds, a regular band at the venue, said he has played Tobacco Row “more times than (he) could count.”
“It’s always been a really positive experience,” he said.
Aldawood said a big contributor to the positive vibe at Tobacco Row is Kite’s easygoing and laid-back attitude.
“There’s never stress when (Kite) is around,” he said. “In an environment where people can inevitably have high stress, whether that be about performing a show, worrying about set times running too long, (Kite) always has a way about keeping people relaxed and having fun.”
The vibe of a house show is typically laid-back relaxed, Aldawood said, and Tobacco Row is no exception.
“There’s no boundary between a listener and a musician,” he said. “You’re not putting anybody on a pedestal … It’s a great environment to make friends.”
Tyler Clark, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies, is one such friend that Kite has made in his years running Tobacco Row.
Clark said the two met through the local underground music scene when he was a freshman, and he has since then helped Kite with the booking and general tasks that come along with throwing a house show.
Clark said house shows like those hosted at Tobacco Row are important in keeping an underground music scene thriving in Tempe.
“There’s a decent amount of venues in Phoenix, but specifically for Tempe, I think house shows are super important because we don’t have access to those venues, and that’s the way we can keep this community alive,” he said.
Clark said he enjoys the low-maintenance process of throwing a show at Tobacco Row. He said if a touring band’s show falls through, Kite and his friends can quickly and easily throw something together so they aren’t wasting gas and time coming to Arizona — something that can’t be easily done through an established venue.
As for what makes Tobacco Row a special venue, Clark said he thinks the independence of the house is what sets it apart.
“We don’t have to rely on the state of Arizona to care about our scene,” he said. “We just have to know that there’s people who are dedicated to it and people that enjoy what we do, and that’s what keeps us going.”