Freshly returned from a Canadian micro-tour, Mischief Brew played a powerful homecoming show on August 27th in their native city of Philadelphia. The venue was the Barbary, a hole in the wall joint featuring a standing room only concert hall. Located directly below the bar bearing its name, this is the perfect club location for any subversive act.
The neighborhood Barbary’s is located in is properly called Fishtown. Located a stone’s throw from the Philly harbor, its name pays homage to a working class community from centuries past. These days the village is more comfortable with sushi than flounder, but there is an element of working class bohemia to be found along the fringes of the gentrified avenues. Walking towards the water, decay becomes apparent, emerging from beneath the interstate overpasses where the desperate and homeless congregate. In a matter of minutes, custom shops give way to corner bodegas and cut rate liquor stores between those businesses boarded up and tagged over by neighborhood youth.
While one is more likely to see an oboe propped over a passerby’s shoulder rather than a baseball bat, it’s not hard to imagine what the neighborhood resembled in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The majority of Mischief Brew grew up on these very streets and the diametrically conflicting atmosphere contrasting the wealth and charm of one street to the trash strewn gutters of another features largely in front-man Erik Petersen’s lyrics. Passing the more rough alleyways and side streets under the leering eye of aging tough guy lines like, “There’s always a friend at your side when you go for a beer around here”, become immediately obvious.
Still, danger and adventure are bedmates, and any radical worth his salt would feel more than at home in such surroundings. Water finds its own level and there were radicals aplenty waiting outside the venue for doors to open on a Sunday night. In addition to the usual smattering of leather clad and mohawked teen devotees, there was a certain element of the sinister to be found. Crust punks drank warm domestic tallboys as nondescript social outliers chain-smoked hand rolled cigarettes, seething towards nothing in. Despite the “all ages” access, the median age was well advanced of say, that of the Warped Tour. One look at the group’s history reveals why.
In 2000, Erik Petersen’s original band, The Orphans, had gained as much success as a local DIY Philly punk group could reasonably expect. Combine this with the newly minted exposure the digital age offered in the form of downloadable music, and The Orphans’ brand of sing along gutter dirges was poised to attain a national agenda. Before that could happen though, the group broke up. While a split means the end of the road for most, to the hardened it spells opportunity. That break up should have been the last we ever heard from Mr. Petersen.
In lieu of the expected, where one might forsake music for say, community college enrollment or acceptance of the loathsome nine to five musicians everywhere swear against, Mr. Petersen carried on. Without label, income, or even a band, he continued playing acoustic punk to minor turn outs in the local area. In the face of The Orphans’ reverie, and in spite of the sentimentality surrounding what-could-have-been, Erik Petersen continued writing. Secluded in a basement late in 2001 with salvaged instruments and a broken four track, Mr. Petersen recorded his first solo demo, Mirth: or, Certain Verses Composed and Fitted to Tunes, for the Delight and Recreation of All. Hand written along the spine of the cassettes ran the line, “A Taste of the Mischief Brew.”
It took more than a decade, but from the jaws of certain obscurity, using a single line sprawled across manually duplicated cassette tapes, the modern incarnation of a group known as Mischief Brew has sprung. Since those days, Mischief Brew has gone on to eclipse the expectations held for The Orphans. The group has grown to include three other members, completed international tours, and recorded splits with folk pilgrim David Dondero, the inimitable Joe Jack Talcum of Dead Milkman fame, and four studio albums under Petersen’s self owned company, Fistolo Records. It is without doubt a success story, a glaringly evident success story, when put into the context of a DIY anarcho punk group, and perhaps the reason they were able to sell out a Sunday night show.
Back in the queue, the swollen crowd grew restless for doors to open. Groups of young punkers preened for each other and discussed glory days they never could have witnessed, while the of age student types and committed radicals spoke in somewhat muted terms the progression of the summer concert circuit and the drawing down of days. A young girl picked a banjo, playing for the benefit of those awaiting a properly wild show until doors opened and the surge spilled forward into the venue.
Opening act, friends, and local Philly group the Adults opened set playing a standard individual, modern approach on classic punk themes. Though widely unknown, the group did their best to deliver a short but tightly wound, rhythm heavy set to stir a crowd mostly anxious for the headliner. And while it was apparent most were unfamiliar with the music, the Adults received a generally enthusiastic applause at the end of a set I would consider much too short.
After breaking down, Mischief Brew took stage, hauling a strange assortment of instruments. The drum set appeared bit pieced, an amalgamation of discarded, or else specifically hand selected units from an assortment of sets. In addition to the standard amplifiers and guitars, a xylophone was brought onto the stage to fill out the percussion section, and when fully set up, there remained little room for the performers.
As the lights dimmed, a ferocious howl erupted from an agitated audience. Erik Petersen quietly introduced the band before launching into a track from their latest EP Rhapsody for Knives. It is important to note that the EP had not yet been released and was only available for consumption at live shows. In spite of this, the majority of the crowd sang along to drown out the vocals. For the next song they chose a selection from one of their most popular releases, 2011’s The Stone Operation.
One aspect of the group that is unique to the progression of almost any band is their apparent sharpening of teeth. Early MB records relied heavily on acoustic instrumentation, which for the most part, gave the albums a folk sound. Indeed, they’ve been called a folk punk group, whatever that may mean. But more recent albums have seen the group tackle fast-paced, distortion drenched numbers, some of which don’t straggle too far from a metal sound. For this performance they took advantage of those harder numbers, never more so than with “A Lawless World”, the chronicle of a hard luck upbringing in a violent inner city. During the song it seemed the club would implode from the raucous reaction and explosive writhing of the audience.
Gone ye are the days of call and response, pogoing and gobbing, thank god, but there remains an element to the circle pit; the shoulder locked crush of fans at stage’s foot, the energy and camaraderie of it all, that harkens one back to the glorious days of their own youth. Punk’s biggest draw has always been the live show. Performed best and most appropriately in the coffin-like confines of dingy clubs, where the collective sweat of an over packed house commingles in the shadows of stage lights while raw sonic energy propels crowds to near hysteria. Until the time comes when the guitar/bass/drum format falls out of fashion, the heave and current like pull of slam dancing will remain a staple at shows. It’s a form of reciprocation really, where the audience, especially for this MB show, pay tribute to the band by working just as hard.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, the intensity and energy of the audience neither flagged nor abated. Singing every track spanning the majority of their discography word for word and applauding to fill up a stadium, Mischief Brew’s fans showed a devotion to the group easily enviable by larger, more commercially successful acts. It should have come as no wonder for a band coming full circle from tours to playing in their own neighborhood. These fans, some of who had been following MB’s progression since those early basement days, some from even before, were ultimately treated to a last big hurrah to close out the summer. If the response served as any indication of loyalty, Mischief Brew will never want for success in Philadelphia.