Crowded House: Five Orlando music scenes that know how to pack them in

Crowded House: Five Orlando music scenes that know how to pack them in
All photos by Jen Cray

Quit trying to come up with a slogan that explains why Orlando is cool. We don't need a tag to verify our culture. When you tap into something authentic and organic, something self-sustaining through invested interest, something that grows more rapidly than grass in the Florida summer because it's actually a wild thing – that's not an experience that demands a catchy phrase to attract some banal outsider. It's where you take your real friends to escape the tired manufactured bar staples, the false nightlife perks.

We don't have to pretend Orlando is a worthwhile place when it comes to our music scene. It speaks for itself. Whether it's a hundred punks packing into Uncle Lou's or a massive block party bumping out of the Milk District back lot, Orlando thrives by providing unique niche scenes you can embed yourself in for maximum reward or just drop in on to freak up your norm.

Not sure where to turn to tap into one of these scenes? We've got you covered. Track through these interviews with local scenemakers to discover new spots, new artists and for the uninitiated: an entirely new side of our city. There's even more to Orlando's underground than what we've documented here – including steady grooves at Tanqueray's, the tender talent incubator of Red Lion Pub, the brashly out-there knock-outs at warehouse venue the Space Station – which only furthers the point that when your music scene is this rich in substance, it's only natural to find yourself at a loss for words to genuinely capture it.

Jump to the scene you're most interested in:
Colours of the Culture (scroll down)
The Geek Easy
The Milk District
The Civic Minded 5
Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall

Colours of the Culture

On a late summer night, Bullitt Bar is mobbed with bodies rigidly avoiding contact. The air is heavy. At the end of the bar, a DJ fidgets. Then Niko Is bounds out and throws an arm around a guy who's just joined him onstage. Niko Is lifts his arm and it's like we're all strung to his fingers. We collectively pull toward him. With an easy stage presence and this mad-charming bounce, he opens into his first song while laser lights attempt to compete with his natural electricity. The room responds, dancing freely with fluid gratitude. The rapper jokes and thanks his imaginary band from his new position in the crowd. Everyone laughs with him. It's joyful in that room, pungent with the kind of camaraderie that makes a lonely onlooker press his nose up to the glass. That's how an atmosphere transitions when Niko Is combusts a scene with his pop-up shows. A Niko Is show isn't typically on the books. There are no books – just whatever storyline he wants to feed Orlando on any given night.

"I get autonomy," Niko Is says of performing in offbeat locales like Reilly's Pub and Bullitt Bar. "I get to do whatever the fuck I want. I don't have to answer to nobody. I could throw a show the night before and have a random band, play with people that I've never played with. And I love that. It's real freeing to just do whatever the fuck you want and not have to follow a script. A lot of these other venues, they don't really care about community. I don't blame them! Community doesn't pay the bills. But it does, eventually. You see places that have been about community, like a Will's Pub, maybe even Tanqueray's. They embrace the local artists and they're all about it. It's not just, let's make money."

click to enlarge Niko Is at Bullitt Bar - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Niko Is at Bullitt Bar

Being constricted as an artist is the utmost fear, but Niko Is learned early on that one of the best ways he could liberate his artistry was by seeking a community that would not only stand by it, but elevate it.

"People release one song and blow up, and that's just not the reality of things," Niko Is says. "After the hit fizzles off, where is the support? It's a trend. You're depending on all these people for your videos, for your art and your sound, and then once the label doesn't give you no more money, you have to come up and do it again, start over. That's why people start having this solidarity later in their careers. Because everyone's so selfish and egocentric at first – I was, too. It took me a little while to realize that. But now I'm so happy and blessed that I have the Colours of the Culture. I trust them more than I trust myself."

They say you've only got one shot and if that's true, Niko Is knows full well what his weapon of choice is. It's called Colours of the Culture, and as a single force, it hits like a battering ram of compelling output. At first, it was just phrasing that stuck after notable producer Thanks Joey used it to describe the music they were creating, but recently, the name has come to represent a worldwide collective based on doggedly pure artistry and authentic connection between artists. Colours of the Culture just debuted an album, ROYGBIV: What a Colourful World, and is airing a 10-episode series through Uproxx sharing behind-the-scenes footage (episodes currently online now). Hip-hop icon Talib Kweli, who has joined Colours of the Culture and told Uproxx it changed his life, wrote a heartfelt tribute to the Orlando-sprung collective to continue bringing their craft to worldwide attention.

"It's not coincidental everyone's really ethnic," Niko Is says of Colours of the Culture. "It's like a spice, so we decide: Let's unite. Big Pun said this rhyme once, and it stuck out to me, it's like, 'Let's unite the city and step to the world as a weapon.'"

On his album, Brutus, Niko Is jokes, "I'm in a class of my own, but I never go" ("Vamoose") and it's a pretty apt way to describe how people removed from the local scene can be willfully oblivious. He says he doesn't have fans here, but friends who get what they're about and want to see if other people can see what they see. There's no bigger source of pride as a music fan than discovering something big in your own backyard.

click to enlarge Niko Is at Bullitt Bar - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Niko Is at Bullitt Bar

"I think people who are in a city like this that never get out complain," Niko Is says. "They're like, 'Ugh, Orlando doesn't care,' 'Orlando doesn't support,' or 'There's the Disney curse.' There's all these excuses that people always create, and I used to say the same thing until I got my hands dirty and I actually did things. Now I'm traveling the world, and I love coming back to Orlando. Because it's always refreshing. It's a different take." – Ashley Belanger

Meet Orlando's Colours of the Culture

Colours of the Culture is much more than just Niko Is' go-to crew of artists and thinkers, but a legitimate movement seeking to express thoughtful, engaged perspectives through different media at the global level. And it's working. They've attracted hip-hop legend Talib Kweli to join their fold (and boost their music through his label Javotti Media and Colours of the Culture features on Uproxx, The Source and Vibe), which accordions out around the world to create what Niko Is refers to as the special spice of the collective's united diversity.

Here in Orlando, though, we get to see a more concentrated and broader spectrum of Colours of the Culture, since the movement began at Dr. Phillips High School with Niko Is and Thanks Joey (plus pals Krikos and YoustheJuice) as young teens squirming to hone their talents. Last year's Brutus LP stands as testament to their continued collaborative force, as Niko Is relies on Thanks Joey to steer his sound as producer for almost all his tracks. Thanks Joey's Brazilian samples pair so well with Niko's respect-commanding flow because these guys go way back, and they look out for each other. (Plus, you know, they're also mad talented.)

Thanks Joey is a leader and founding member of Colours of the Culture. Other locals involved with Colours of the Culture include Townsky (drummer), Truly Def (rapper, apparel designer), Krikos (producer), Federico Pena (sound engineer), Palmer Reed (R&B artist), YoustheJuice (artist) and Henry Daher (producer, drummer; also involved with promotion force Dope Entertainment).

The Geek Easy

If you've ever been to A Comic Shop in Winter Park, you know it's a warp like walking into a cult '90s movie (if only High Fidelity took place in the Batcave). There's always a snappy heated conversation you pass through to peruse the quaint but smartly curated shop, and while the debate will have plenty of tension, there's the underlying warmth of friendship and carefully guarded mutual respect that keeps nerd dialogues all over the world humming. It's not just a store, it's a conversation starter. From good conversations come lasting friendships and, in a motivated environment like A Comic Shop, true community.

Orlando's nerdy music scene was basically born out of that cultural incubator when the now-defunct Nerdapalooza started hosting concerts in the parking lot of A Comic Shop. When that festival outgrew the lot, they kept A Comic Shop involved by throwing pre-parties and after-parties there. Then when that culture became persistent, the Geek Easy was a born – a major store expansion that features a prominent stage in a pop-culture-splashed bonus room where they recently updated the PA system and lighting to continue upping their music game. Later, when Orlando Nerd Fest debuted in 2014, they hosted free weekly shows leading up to the fest at the Geek Easy, and even made it a hub where people could catch a bus to get to the Convention Center safely and with no hassle to attend the massive nerdy music festival. It'd be drastic to say there'd be no nerdy scene without A Comic Shop and its spawn the Geek Easy, but it certainly played a significant role in its rampant growth.

click to enlarge Crunkwitch at the Geek Easy - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Crunkwitch at the Geek Easy

"They've always been heavily ingrained in the nerdy scene in general," says James Dechert, who runs sound for the Geek Easy and works closely with promoters to book shows. "The patrons and staff of A Comic Shop pretty much built the nerdy scene around here. And then from that, the Geek Easy was built. That's the bar, video game, hang-out aspect. I believe their goal is just to create a place for nerds to come together, find each other, hang out and share interests."

With a monthly open mic hosted by beloved local songwriter Marc With a C, blow-out parties fueled by the unique mania of bands like Random Encounter, and cosplay-inspiring DJ nights helmed by standout spinners like Benjamin Briggs and Sam Harris, music has seeped in to become as dominant an interest of the scene as the campy movie marathons and epic trivia nights that likewise draw crowds to the Geek Easy. Their active calendar has begun attracting outsiders who eye the Geek Easy more as a legitimate venue option for acts not necessarily tacked to the nerdy lifestyle.

"I assume you know about EyeQ," Dechert says. "He's a pretty big local nerdcore rapper. He's been trying to act as a bridge between nerdcore and local hip-hop. He's thrown a couple really big hip-hop shows with the Geek Easy that ended up with really stacked lineups, like E-Turn and DiVinci, people I wouldn't expect to see at the Geek Easy. I'm really glad it's being treated like an actual venue."

click to enlarge Random Encounter at the Geek Easy - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Random Encounter at the Geek Easy

Sometimes a room becomes more than a room, due to the devoted folks who fill it up. That's what's happened at the Geek Easy, where a diverse event schedule helps attract new crowds to concerts they might otherwise never discover.

"If you're trying to foster a community, it can't all just be music, because there's plenty of other ways to connect, build friendships and all of that," Dechert says. "Not everyone is a diehard music fan. A lot of times people end up at karaoke there or something, and they're like, 'Oh, I'm gonna check this other event out,' and then tap into the music side of it." – Ashley Belanger

Heard at the Geek Easy

Benjamin Briggs
Listen to: "No One's Watching"
Trippy electronic manipulations make video game themes groovy

Listen to: "Songs of Hope and Freedom Ft. Mega Ran, Richie Branson & Purple Kloud"
Huge hip-hop heart conjured through nerdy imagery

Listen to: "Season V"
Big rock muscle powers nerdy laments

The Milk District

The heart of the eclectic Milk District has been beating with a little more bass recently. For years now, Sandwich Bar has been a bastion for classic house music by hosting a procession of local dance royalty and DJs that have rocked thousands – names like Kimball Collins, Dave Cannalte, Doc Martin, LTJ Bukem, King Britt, Three, Q-Burns, Robby Clark and Sleazy McQueen. But recently, concentrated events two doors down at Spacebar and the residency of enterprising party crew Body//Talk have converged to create a new synergy that's given the Robinson Street strip new definition as a small but rising indie dance scene.

click to enlarge Grassrootz at Spacebar - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Grassrootz at Spacebar

Although Spacebar has hosted its own dance-oriented nights, only a few have stuck, according to owner Tommy Mot, whose own considerable scene cred as a DJ goes back to the international glory days of Orlando's '90s dance wave at clubs like Firestone, Knock Knock, Icon and the Blue Room. Several months ago, Mot tapped Body//Talk honcho Phil Santos to manage Spacebar's calendar. Now, the bar's beat menu is bolstered by Santos' new monthly Late Night Swim events and the district has become home base to the monthly Body//Talk parties, which take over Spacebar, Sandwich Bar and the parking lot that joins them.

"I think they found their niche now," Mot says of Body//Talk. "For the Body//Talk parties, we have bands in here most of the times now and the DJs will be over [at Sandwich Bar]. ... Both rooms are packed. There's really a lot of kids that are into cool shit, that wanna hear different things. They're not pigeonholed like you see downtown."

click to enlarge Grassrootz at Spacebar - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Grassrootz at Spacebar

But more than just another scene, the edge and ethos here are the difference. "It's super open and non-judgmental," says Mot. "There's so many different types of people there – gay, straight, dudes, chicks, geeks, nerds, skateboard kids, film people ... If you're kind of not an open-minded person and you come to this place, you're gonna feel uncomfortable. So it has a tendency to keep the douchey lameness away and it just keeps growing with cool, open-minded people. So in that sense, Body//Talk is in a position to be as big as they wanna take it, really." – Bao Le-Huu

Heard first in the Milk District

Listen to: "Late Night Swim - Mix 001"
Under this DJ moniker, Body//Talk founder Phil Santos is as inclusive of rhythm genres as he is of his parties

Listen to: "244 E Houston St"
Resident DJ for Body//Talk, motion | UNDRGRND and Grassrootz

Listen to: "Everything I Do" (feat. Chuck Mendler)
Deep and clean late-night house

The Civic Minded 5

Back in the mid-'90s when Park Ave CDs was still actually on Park Avenue in Winter Park, the store was almost entirely staffed by Rollins College WPRK DJs. This created a curious bond between the music playing on the air of the college radio station and on the albums moving through the CD and vinyl store. Although this permeating force (which eventually shifted Orlando's music scene markedly) didn't yet have a name, their work was quietly furthered when they started booking edgy concerts around a loud man who became a major game changer in Orlando's music scene: Sam Rivers.

"He was a catalyst," says Matt Gorney, founding member of the local collective the Civic Minded 5 and music history teacher at Full Sail University. "And people who were punk rock musicians and people who were electronic musicians and DJs started being affected by this Sam Rivers effect. It was starting to affect the way they were making music, listening to music and being open-minded toward other things. And that period, that mid-'90s period, WPRK was very adventurous. ... All of this stuff started to be really affected by Sam. So that sort of laid the bed for Civic Minded 5. "

click to enlarge The Thing at Timucua White House - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
The Thing at Timucua White House

The Civic Minded 5 started out booking shows at Rollins College in 1996, with ample support from the school to fund and host their inventive concert programs. You'd think drawing an invested crowd to a private college chapel to see a jazz concert (Friday night!!) might not be at the top of every '90s college kid's to-do list, but once Rivers' music began to catch on with a mainstream audience after a fateful show at what is now the Social with Phat-N-Jazzy, his measurable pull reliably drew a varied audience seeking to soak in his wild artistry (especially after he formed his trio with an insanely solid rhythm section in drummer Anthony Cole and bassist Doug Mathews).

"Sam Rivers had the biggest nights at the Sapphire Supper Club," Gorney says. "They were our biggest nights, and it just became this thing that people came to, and it started having this broad impact on people who were not even jazz musicians but were starting to see what he was doing in the amount of energy that was involved."

"All the hippies would be dancing to his music like it was a Dead show," laughs Civic Minded 5 member and Gallery at Avalon Island director Pat Greene, describing the '90s scene in Melbourne at the Lazy Bean, where Rivers' Florida career first broke.

Jokes aside, energy is why you go to a Civic Minded 5 show. The collective draws on a wide pool of diehard music fans who travel the world in chase of unusual minds bending their instruments to create constant surprise by resisting predictable songwriting. These artists exist in genres loosely labeled like free jazz (The Thing, Peter Brötzmann) or avant-garde (Mary Halvorson, Zs) or experimental (Sun Araw, Bill Orcutt), but they extend the definition of music by their existence. After a certain point, the Civic Minded 5 realized they could do much more locally if they became a self-subsisting booking entity.

"We just started to realize we weren't going to be able to keep going back to the well and asking for a check and asking, 'Can you get us a room?'" Gorney says. "So we decided to be a little more autonomous, like WPRK will still be a sponsor of this, but we'll kind of take this into our hands. And our friend Pete Barber was the DJ of 'The World Music Show,' and he said, 'We should just pool money together and sort of be this socialist collective type thing.' And at first I was like, 'I don't know if that's too many cooks in the kitchen. I don't know if it'll work.'"

It worked too well, and Gorney says after they booked one band (who leaked to others that they were paid a living wage and played to a decent crowd), emails started clawing at the Civic Minded 5's concert calendar from so many performers seeking dates. So much so Gorney likens the experience to being bombarded by stray cats. And so the collective needed a name. The one they took is kind of misleading. Even if you're a fan of the short-lived cartoon The Tick.

click to enlarge The Thing at Timucua White House - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
The Thing at Timucua White House

"Do you know about The Tick?" Gorney says. "Well, there's a really shitty superhero collective called the Civic Minded 5, and they really sucked. They were not effective at all. One was Mucilage Man, he always had shit stuck to him. And again, it's Pete Barber. We were joking about, like, 'We're the Civic Minded 5!' because we had been watching The Tick."

The collective is more than five people, and to join requires regular dues. Most of the shows the Civic Minded 5 books are free to the audience but funded by the collective, the community that supports them and earned grants. Audiophiles completely, they heavily consider the room before booking their shows at unconventional venues like Timucua White House, intimate spaces like Gallery at Avalon Island or traditional clubs like Will's Pub. Their mission is to uncover the world's most intriguing musical minds and import them to showcase here in Orlando, appreciating freak streaks and true genius you can't find just anywhere, and you certainly otherwise wouldn't encounter here.

"We would book our vacations and go to New York or wherever," Gorney says. "Just go for a week and go see shows every night or go to a festival and just see 20 concerts. So being able to do that here was just way cooler. Because you think, well, we're going to spend money on this, let's have it here and just essentially throw a party for our friends." – Ashley Belanger

Hear more: New Sam Rivers' Rivbea Orchestra

Jazz legend Sam Rivers first came to Orlando in the mid-'90s to perform a single date with Dizzy Gillespie, at a time when he was based out of New Jersey, in his early '70s and tiring of the winters. He thought Orlando seemed nice, and an opportunistic showgoer that very night enticed Rivers to relocate, offering him a turnkey big band comprised of professional musicians farmed from the theme parks. They basically shook hands on it then and there. Rivers moved south, and Orlando moved closer to a rich music movement that extended through the early 2000s.

Rivers died in 2011, and it shook fans and local musicians with the same jolting force experienced when he bolted onto the scene. While he is unmistakably still missed – his radical stage presence was true to his wild nature – his music lives on the last Wednesday of every month when Will's Pub hosts the New Sam Rivers' Rivbea Orchestra. It's Rivers' former band (a polished 16-piece orchestra) performing Rivers' music under the direction of Doug Mathews, who was a core part of the Sam Rivers Trio. (FYI: The last Will's performance of 2015 will be next month.) If you've never seen the orchestra fill out the pub, it's a surreal blast from Orlando's recent past that ranks among the best regular offerings in our music scene.

Uncle Lou - Photo by Jim Leatherman
Photo by Jim Leatherman
Uncle Lou

Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall

The official name of the joint is Lou's LMGA, but it's known simply and affectionately as Uncle Lou's after the man who runs it. And it's become the city's weirdest little live venue by sheer, happy accident.

Uncle Lou began with a game room in Parramore, then moved to SoDo for a short while, until finally settling into the heart of Mills 50, a neighborhood interesting enough to allow a place like this to not just survive but shine. Live music, however, was never envisioned for the bar, at least not by Lou.

click to enlarge Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall

"Some kids came in and actually asked me if they could play music there," he says in his stout Jamaican accent. "And I said, yes, you could go ahead and play music, I've no problem with it, not knowing what I was getting into at the time."

It was a punk show, a revelation of sorts for the islander. "Probably the terriblest thing I ever heard, this loud noise banging in my ears," laughs Lou. "But I got an open mind ... I could notice that they was really having fun jumping around, doing this crazy dance, so I continued doing it from there."

Uncle Lou's has a total open-door policy, a true rarity anywhere. Musicians wanting to play need only hit Lou up on the venue's Facebook page or call the bar. Simple as that. "Whether it's five people show up or 30, Uncle Lou gonna let you have a show," he says. "Whether it's your first time playing or you've been playing for 10 year, Uncle Lou gonna let you have a show. I try to give everyone a chance."

click to enlarge Yautja at Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall - Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray
Yautja at Uncle Lou's Entertainment Hall

For the past decade or so, the crossing of Lou's welcoming, laissez-faire hosting and the hungry DIY music community has been beautifully reactive, elevating the place from basic dive to truly special scene incubator. It's home to a colorful constellation of misfits and is the freakiest of the Mills Avenue fringe. But its true cultural import is as a hothouse for the thriving street-level creativity of the local scene and the wider, connected underground beyond. Besides representing the area's most interesting ends of the spectrum – punk, metal, noise, experimental, folk, rock, electronic, whatever – excellent national names like Black Diamond Heavies, Centuries, Yautja, Cult Leader, East of the Wall, Clamfight and Holly Hunt have electrified Uncle Lou's.

Lou himself admits to surprise at the identity the place has developed. But he might just understand something that developers, planners and legislators often don't: that interesting things happen when you just let them. And the combination of Uncle Lou and Mills Avenue has proven alchemical.

"There's no one that come through this door that I do not love," he proclaims. "I believe that these punk rockers, music people in a whole, they got my back. They believe in me. They love me." – Bao Le-Huu

Heard first at Uncle Lou's

The Rot Guts
Listen to: "Dream Girl"
Freak punk blending heavy sounds and weird thoughts

Trotsky's Watercooler
Listen to: "Mount Fuji Eruption – 1707"
Industrial noise that blends performance art

Warm Like Winter
Listen to: "UnNamed"
Good old-fashioned '80s hardcore revival

About The Authors

Ashley Belanger

Associate editor, music nerd, NBA junkie, Florida explorer and obsessive pet owner.
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