[8 February 2009]
As an avid concertgoer, you head out seeking king-sized portions of ephemera: The be-here-now, the once-in-a-lifetime, the is-this-really-happening moments that exist in your memory like bottled lightning, a little fuzzier and a little more embellished with each passing year. I may see a better concert in 2009 than the Fucked Up-led bill that crash landed at the Market Hotel on Inauguration Day and proceeded to blow it out with no small effort—and I have definitely seen better sets from everyone on the bill save for Pissed Jeans.
But I can’t even imagine right now something else so rich with panorama, so jam-packed with “moments,” so loaded with implication based on what day it was and so potential-heavy given the bands involved and where they’re breaking right now on the spectrum of buzz and hype and how they’re prepared to deal with it. Was it a great night of music? I don’t know; it felt more like assault and overstimulation than a rich musical experience. Was it a hell of a concert? Bet your pirate beard and startlingly pronounced gut, amigo.
Fucked Up’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life is so good that there’s a critical tendency to elevate them to something higher than they are, which is a top-of-the-line and fairly traditional hardcore band much more interested in hooks, tight rhythms and, dare I say it, soulfulness than most garden variety screamers. And maybe that does elevate them after all; songs like “Generation”, “Black Albino Bones”, “Crooked Head”, and “Son the Father”—all of which got manic airings at the Market Hotel—make great use of Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham’s animal magnetism, whipping the crowd into a frenzy and delivering blast-out-your-lungs catharsis, forced or natural.
The rest of Fucked Up delivers the goods with fuzzy jamming and rowdy rhythms, but next to Abraham, they’re “the rest of Fucked Up”—their rotund frontman commands every bit of attention and brings the entire energy of the room into his orbit. You don’t know whether he’s there to drink a beer with you, crack some jokes or raise all-out hell, you just want the guy on your side. Watching Fucked Up hurtle through much of Chemistry plenty of 2006’s Hidden World and a healthy sampling of obscurities, singles, mix tape cuts, and other oddities (like “Vivian Girls”, a new song in honor of their support act, which was perfect in its frayed edges and pronounced solidarity), you felt lucky to be part of the circus.
And what a circus. Here’s the Market Hotel, allegedly a former Dominican speakeasy in a vaguely gentrifying section of Bushwick where hipsters walk sheepishly under elevated trains along Myrtle Avenue in hopes of finding a venue that’s almost entirely invisible from the outside—an entry guarded by a large bouncer and a second-floor room that’s no more descript than the piles of snow on either side of the street or the placid-looking grocery store below it.
Inside, there’s a rickety looking stage set up at one end of the large, clamshell-shaped main room, covered in parts with paint in odd floral shapes and alternately peeling pieces of wall. People will jump on that stage and dive off throughout the night—sometimes so intensely and so frequently as to make it look like a synchronized dance routine—prompting several insistent speeches between bands from a promoter whose pleas to not do so are almost laughably futile. There’s almost no lighting, and the bathroom lines are 30 deep at all times. The bar is a long table where harried, but impressively poised bartenders fetch cans of PBR and Busch Light from large green ice tubs and damp cardboard containers, and pour shots of JD, Jim Beam, and whatever else from unorganized handles of liquor that look like they were shanghaied from a frat party. A place to drink, to smoke, to rock out, to mosh, to absorb, to fear—to be in. Bands will make ample reference to Obama. Abraham will tell us about watching the inauguration in a McDonald’s (“What’s more American than that? Besides invading Iraq!” bellows the Canuck). An American flag has been lazily pinned up behind the stage. Rock.
In truth, it was Allentown, Pennsylvania-based Pissed Jeans that harnessed the full power of such a volatile atmosphere. Here’s a punk band that insists on addition by destruction—throwing every apocalyptic-sounding hook and scare-you-stiff vocal and crunching guitar line into a blender and then opening that blender while it’s still rotating at full speed and letting the mixture whip out and rain on the room. Walls got punched through. The stage got crowded. It was a frenzy, and came off its own rails plenty of times; Pissed Jeans likes to see how close it can get to total spazz-out chaos, meaning it falls apart every few minutes. But in those moments somewhere between playing it safe and falling apart, they find the jumpy, frisson-filled excitement all great punk does—and they do it while singing about the devil as an ice cream man and sexual frustration to boot.
Vivian Girls benefited least from the arrangement. I’ve long enjoyed their approach: Lovely all-girl harmonies riding atop noisy, pummeling rhythms and paint-stripping guitars. Yet, they seemed withdrawn—cold, even—as if playing their set in a rehearsal space and not willing to seize the moment-in-time-ness of the night. People pogoed, sure, and the Girls played a crisp 45 minutes, but it felt mechanical, without the heart and guile I’d seen from them, at, say, a blast-off set at San Diego’s Casbah in November. I’ll remember them as having been a part of this nutty, nutty night, but little else beyond that.