For years, Washington, DC was an unlikely bastion of underground music, playing host to the likes of Henry Rollins and hardcore demigod and Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye. Outside of the hardcore scene it was a must-play city for any rock band touring the Eastern Seaboard. But it seems that with the demise of Fugazi came the demise of the power of DC music. Over the last 10 years, the city has seen live venues be turned into dance clubs that cater to the posh, transient mainstream of DC society, or empty pits to be filled by high rise condos. Of course, there is still local music, and clubs like the Black Cat and the Velvet Lounge still host local bands and larger national acts. And bands, particularly those showcased here on Burn to Shine: Washington DC 01.14.2004, have managed to keep DC on the map nationally; but something seems to be missing. There is no feeling of a local music counter culture simmering just below the surface. Shows in the DC area aren’t populated by the city’s youth; instead, they are being filled more and more by an aging crowd wanting to recapture flashes of yesteryear. It seems the youth angst that defined the scene for so many years has been replaced by the quiet restraint of older, wiser music fans. These older, wiser fans are fine. However, for most it’s hard to identify with the punk ethos at age 30; they can’t sustain a music scene on their own. They need the disenfranchised youth to shoulder the weight of sweaty Tuesday night shows at undersized clubs with too much or too little to drink. Rock and Roll, especially local music, thrives on the energy of the youth culture which currently seems to be distracted by raves and reality television.
This isn’t a call to arms for the youth of DC (chances are, if you’re reading this you’re already pretty well engaged in the scene anyway). This is a review of Burn to Shine, produced and curated by founding member of Fugazi, Brendan Canty. Canty has an idea. The idea is to film bands in empty spaces that are scheduled for imminent destruction. By “placing them in a context relative to one another and their chosen city”, as Canty describes in the liner notes, it better captures what it means to see them live. Each DVD will take place in a different city, with a different curator selecting the bands to perform, ensuring that the right bands are selected. Washington, DC is the first in the series of these shows designed to capture the bands in the most intimate of settings. Centering on the DIY ethic that Canty has been so much a part of, each band performs one song, live with no overdubs—it’s raw, intimate, and stunning.
The house to be burned to the ground belonged to Pat Paddack, a DC native and friend of Canty’s. The old, abandoned house and cold weather set the stark tone of the performances. As Canty says on the DVD: The bands that perform are a snapshot of a music scene that existed in a particular time and date and—like the house—no longer exists.
The acts showcased range from the melodic Garland of Hours (featuring Brendan Canty and Jerry Busher) to the bizarre Weird War. Also among the performers are Ted Leo, Q and not U, Ian MacKaye’s the Evens, and Bob Mould. That all 8 acts showed up despite early morning hour filming and freezing temperatures is impressive enough. That they are all in the moment and give inspired performances is, well, inspiring.
The first of the bands to perform is Q and not U. Very much steeped in the Washington, DC punk sounds of Fugazi, Q and not U and the following act, Medications, deliver the loudest of the day’s performances. Later in the day, before Bob Mould’s solo acoustic performance of “Hoover Dam”, closes the event, Ian MacKaye’s newest project, the Evens, perform. The Evens have significantly trimmed the edges off of MacKaye’s early work with Minor Threat and Fugazi. MacKaye has opted for a singular baritone guitar and a far more subtle vocal approach, abandoning the bite of his past and instead opting for rich harmonies with drummer Amy Farina. The subdued, stripped-down sound, although far more inviting and less caustic than Fugazi, still has signature MacKaye angst.
The final shots of the DVD are those of the house being burnt to the ground. Flames rise and lick the walls and smoke billows out of windows. The images are haunting and violent and beautiful. Following the burning of the house, the crew takes a final few shots of the house. The destruction done and the moment passed. The powerful imagery drives home the often fleeting nature of bands and the importance of capturing them in the hours they can be seen.
The bands and performers are eclectic to be sure, but they share the same aesthetic for music. The stripped down sound and empty room give the DVD a rehearsal space vibe and an intimacy that is not easily replicated even on a stage. Canty has collected a unique portrait of the DC music scene as it exists today, and by doing so simultaneously shines a light on its past and gives hope for its future.