The Blood Brothers
We want a band
that plays loud and hard every night…
They’d strike chords
that cut like a knife.
It’d mean so much more
than a T-shirt or ticket stub.
They’re stopping nothing short of massacre
and everyone would leave with the memory
that there was no place else in the world
and this is where they’d always belong.
—“Reinventing Axl Rose,” Against Me!
Against Me should have saved punk rock.
For all its naïve, utopian imagery, “Reinventing Axl Rose” speaks to something tangible, a community that, in fleeting moments, I’ve seen flicker at the edge of vision. Stitched somewhere between indiscernible ethics and a parade of postures there’s a transcendent space, a pocket conjured by sweat-drenched T-shirts, by fists arching forward, landing in time inches from a singer’s face.
No illusions; no nostalgic duress. If I was ever a punk, I’ve long since sold out. I know that the bucket leaks more then it holds water, that punk rock is innately flawed by impractical idealism. I understand that ultimately it consumes itself.
Mall punks and fashionistas taught me this. But despite my rambling, laborious rants, I keep a smidgen of that juvenile naiveté alive. Against Me’s 2002 debut Reinventing Axl Rose nurtured this sense, reinvigorated it. I know that embracing an unattainable ethos can only end the way it has before, in disappointment. Still, knowing that, I let myself be a believer.
* * *
There’s been an inexplicable switch-up. Word sweeps swiftly across the room: “the Blood Brothers are opening!?!?” Tight shirts ripple in confusion, bursting in post-emo rage. “What the fuck?”
A glance at my ticket stub confirms the source of confusion: “BLOOD BROTHERS” written in dark black letters. “Against Me” appears as an afterthought, stitched below in the far right corner. Maybe it’s a mistake, but I can deal. After all, I’m no wussy post-hardcore kid; I’m a punk rocker.
The Blood Brothers, of course, operate on a wholly different level of energy. Chests thrusting forward in full body head bangs, co-vocalists Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney effortlessly mash screaming vocals. The product is a masterful fusion of guttural grunts and prepubescent wails.
At times the band’s screams meet metal velocity, cracking into surprisingly tonal wails—after years of throwing their voices well beyond their range the singers’ vocal cords have finally relented, allowing a duly earned upper range to emerge. The intensity of their contortions is ever-present as their slender frames and short bodies seek some sort of visceral escape through motion.
The band plays generously from its back catalogue, dropping in tunes from both March on Electric Children and Burn Piano Island, Burn. The intensity in these songs resonates and keeps the audience content through the slower, more conceptual cuts from their more recent release Crimes.
The Blood Brothers’ new material is distinct, extraordinary in its bottled reserve. Driving guitar noise takes a back seat to keyboard melodies and jerky, plodding, bass lines. The band’s sporadic, kiddy vocals remain a highlight, as I imagine the singer’s voice plucked from some delightful, pre-pubescent, playground shouting match. Still, for all their intensity, the Blood Brothers have trouble lighting up the room. A lone crowd surfer dips in and out amongst reserved dancers and a parade of nodding heads. It can’t be apathy. Maybe some kind of auditory overload?
After a full hour of fiery assaults, the band brings their hammer to a halt, leaving scores of ringing ears in its wake. Those fancying themselves members of the various “post” subcultures that champion the Blood Brothers are now left with a difficult decision. Can they handle a bit of punk rock, or would it be better to turn in for the night? Immediately decisive, about a third of the crowd hits the door. All the better. It becomes exponentially easier to conjure the punk rock spirit as the size of an audience dissipates. And after all, that’s why I’m here.
* * *
Against Me didn’t sell out. That’s not my complaint—whew, no bitter rant on punk rock authenticity. The band’s recent record As the Eternal Cowboy is different. That’s all.
On Reinventing Axl Rose, Against Me flew in the face of punk rock protocol embracing a slow mash-up of spaghetti western guitar, acoustic balladry and street-punk vocals. Thomas Gabel’s brash, stinging screams leapt from his throat with a distinctly raw quality. His voice was naked and grotesque. Disgusting and beautiful. These imperfections were the band’s lifeblood, their unique gift to a stagnant, largely homogenous subculture.
Cowboy conforms to the often-likable standards of Against Me’s label brethren, on Fat Wreck Chords: slick, driving three-chord progressions and punchy, punk-pop vocals. The band makes an apt showing but their core is lost in pristine production.
In person the band shows that these aesthetic errors were largely left in the studio. The band’s new material is all barbed wire and bloody noses, as raw as anything that preceded it.
The “boys” are older than I expected. In blurry art shots and promotional pictures, their faces are barely visible. I’d always pictured them as emaciated street-rats, guttered out in grimy jeans. The jeans are grimy, but their bellies seem mighty full. Though the music might speak to early-teen idealism, their faces are those of weathered twenty-somethings.
As the band opens their set, dipping through a number of newer songs, the crowd digs in, bracing their bodies as they carve a pit out of a previously stagnant mass. I’m not ready to move yet. It’s bound to happen when you fall in love with a band’s first record that you’ll feel the gaps in their set more heavily. I don’t like these new songs as much, it’s true, but they’re growing on me. Give me something I know. Pull the trigger and I’ll snap into line.
Breaking out of the new material, the band layers the distortion for “Reinventing Axl Rose.” Awakened, I mouth the words. I’ve said it before; “punk” is stitched into movements and gestures, cracks in voices and sputtering smiles. For this moment at least, we connect.
About 20 minutes into the set Gabel takes a moment to spout a bit of political rhetoric. “Given the setting it seems appropriate.”
This is the cardinal sin. I’m well aware of the importance of politics. I live in DC.
Of course, it’s a forgivable offense, a pet peeve sure, but a sin committed by scores of other acts on their first ride though town. What usually don’t follow however, are the words: “You see, I’m an Anarchist.”
Caught in a double bind, the singer explains that anarchy, as a system, does not preclude the freedom of the individual to express political thought. Umm, ok. I’ve never been a heckler, but where’s that guy shouting “less talk more rock” when you need him? “PLAY FREEBIRD!”
The band follows this political showing with a rendition of “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious”, a song that I’ve previously celebrated for its indictment of overly zealous political thought. Tongue and cheek all the way, the band proclaims “Baby, I’m an anarchist, you’re a spineless liberal”, complaining that “when it came time to throw bricks through that Starbucks window you left me all alone”.
Except, they’re not joking.
I’m left in a tailspin. Could it be that the biting, intelligent wit I allowed the band is actually kitschy, over-the-top, punk rock idiocy?
Settle. After all, bad politics and a few lackluster songs shouldn’t shake my spirit. There’s a lot more show to go. And Against Me is true blue.
The band pumps through another few of their new songs then brings itself to an abrupt halt.
“Thank you, good night.”
WHAT? But you only played 35 minutes!
The singer off-handedly whispers, “We’re southern, but we’re not Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
The crowd pummels the ground, screaming for the band’s return. I reserve judgment. Sure, it’s weird that a band like this would make you coax an encore, but I’m sure they have their reasons.
A roadie takes the stage, moving to the fore. On tiptoes he motions to the soundman slicing a hand across his neck. The stereo kicks in and the lights come up.
Where’s the band that promised me they’d play loud and hard every night, that didn’t care how many people came in at the door? I waded through the rhetoric; now give me the good stuff. Where’s my memory that this is no place else in the world?
You’re stopping something short of massacre?