Where: Brooklyn Masonic Temple
This is gonna be a long one...
Last night, I headed out to Fort Greene to hear experimental hardcore band Fucked Up perform their already-classic 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life. I got to the venue just in time to catch the first notes of the opening set by Titus Andronicus, the band that restored my faith in punk a year ago.
But things have changed a lot for this band in the space of a year. They've been frequently hailed as one of the best hardcore bands of this generation, they've got some snazzy invites to play with rad bands (like Jesus Lizard and Bad Brains at the private Vice party on Halloween). They've toured extensively and saw their killer 2008 album The Airing of Grievances rereleased on XL records, part of the indie behemoth Beggars Group. They've also changed their line-up. The two guitarists I last saw them with are both gone, replaced by "indie heartthrob" Pete Feigenbaum.*
Being down one guitarist kept frontman Patrick Stickles tied to his guitar, curbing some of his previous antics and eliminating the harmonica from the set. However, I think it's a net positive - the band sounds more focused than ever before. The band's recent success also apparently afforded them enough for haircuts and a visit to the laundromat, maybe even for new t-shirts entirely. That sounds awfully snarky, but I love a good hardcore band no matter how dirty or clean their clothes, how scraggy or tidy their hair. It gave the show a slightly different feel from Titus shows I've been to in the past, not better or worse, just different.
Fitting with their slightly cleaned-up appearance, Titus Andronicus have polished up their sound. Don't think that takes off the edge, though. They are loud and fast and make me want to move to Ireland and go to a pub with people I will come to call "the lads" every night just so that we can stumble home shouting drunken renditions of every Titus Andronicus song we know. But Titus Andronicus has always been a technically sophisticated band and now their guitar-work can really shine. They've rearranged their songs to include some enormous, glittering walls of sound, some stunning embellishing riffs and some crazy, crazy noise. They are more loud and cool and fun than ever. [MySpace]
And then the headliner, the enigmatic Fucked Up, who are living proof that you can't judge a book (punk band) by its cover (appearance). There are six people in Fucked Up. The two of the left side of the stage are clean-cut young men that look like the guys your parents wish you brought home to meet them. The three on the right are slightly more unkempt, but they definitely look more like kids you'd expect to see working in your college library than ones you expect to run into at a seedy hardcore show. Meanwhile, the frontman is a heavy-set, bald, bearded guy who came out on stage last night in baggy athletic shorts, a big t-shirt and a baseball cap askew on his head. Even knowing the band, I half expected him to start rapping on the spot.
But this is neither nice-boy rock nor quirky indie, and it's certainly not gangsta rap. It's one of the most innovative, most confrontational hardcore bands on earth. Starting with the name, Fucked Up are in your face. They've generated a myriad of rumours about themselves, don't keep a myspace page (though fans keep a detailed one including concert dates) and don't really give a fuck what people think or say - they did little, for example, to quell rumours that they had an underhanded neo-Nazi message. (They don't.)
Calling Fucked Up a "hardcore" band can be a little misleading, however. With three guitarists, along with bass and drums, and songs on average clocking in well past the three-minute mark, their music has a complexity that seems the antithesis of punk. On recordings, they literally layer dozens of guitar tracks. Still, their music has the fast-loud punch of hardcore, the same thrash-style shouting vocals and the same "fuck off" attitude. Fucked Up are without a doubt a hardcore punk band, they've just redefined what that means.
But for all their aggression, Fucked Up is one of the most loving, lovely bands I've ever seen. Their music inspires such a sense of camaraderie that it inspires hundreds of attention-starved teenagers to take turns jumping on stage to hug or attack a band member, shout into a microphone or bang a cymbal (or in this case, gong). Now, if it were me, I'd lose my temper quickly and send the kids home with notes to their parents begging them to take some time out to spend with the lonely youths. But Fucked Up is bigger than me, and even when someone acts particularly inappropriately, they make the best of it, grabbing the offending kid to shout in the microphone for a few lines before hurling them good-naturedly back into the crowd. Meanwhile, frontman Pink Eyes is up front handing the microphone around, grabbing kids for high-fives, hugs, kisses and affectionate rough-housing.
All evening, the crowd, though moshing and dancing wildly, seemed uninterested in helping crowd-surfers, so one kid after another bellyflopped off the stage onto the floor below. And not long after I thought to myself, "at least this band has a frontperson who can't stage dive" (I mentioned he's a heavy dude), Pink Eyes himself took the plunge. Even if the audience had been supporting people, I'm not sure they could have handled his mass and he dropped straight to the floor. After a bit of crawling and thrashing around, he climbed back on stage. "Thanks for catching me, guys," he said. "Real cool." He flashed a big thumbs-down and then chided the crowd, telling us that "little kids" in China had once carried him. Personally, I'd like to see some photographic evidence of this alleged occurrence.
Performing much of the material from their outstanding album The Chemistry of Common Life, the band brought special guests Andrew W-K, the Vivian Girls and singer Katie Stelmanis on stage. Though the Vivian Girls enraged me by unprofessionally peering out from behind the curtains at the wings when not on stage, I have to admit, I really liked their performance. This is definitely the first time I've said something positive about the band, and grudgingly so, but I gotta hand it to them - fingers jammed in their ears, they sang mostly the right notes (not an easy task in all that noise) and the songs they performed were definitely among my favorites in the set. Equally surprisingly, I highly disliked Andrew W-K's part in the set. The one guest who did not actually play on the album, his keyboard synth parts sounded clinky and didn't blend. I respect him immensely as a musician and maybe it was just bad mixing from the sound engineer, but I found him nothing more than distraction.
Watching kids go wild for the band, it dawned on me how powerful this band is. Just by their very existence, by the fact that they don't get outlandish haircuts and clothes, by the fact that they vary from wiry to overweight (and the overweight one ends the show nearly naked), by having a girl in the band who's there for musicianship and not at all for sex-appeal, Fucked Up are the essence of punk at its best - a refuge for anyone who has ever felt out of place in the mainstream. "Come as you are," a great punk band once said.
But it's more than that. These guys don't look like punks. They also all have stage names. Rumour or truth, part of the Fucked Up legend is that the band adopted these names to hide their association with the band from employers, colleagues and maybe even certain relatives. Fucked Up is the Superman of punk rock. Like Clark Kent, they could be some guy in the next cubicle over, some girl you run into at the grocery store, or even little ol' you. They're the everyman as rock hero. Punk is way more than a musical style, it's a powerful identity and an underground community that's served as a family to outcasts and freaks for decades. Just because we might not see a lot of mohawks and safety-pins when we walk down the street, doesn't mean we're alone. Punk isn't dead. It's as vibrant and strong as ever. And it's all over the place, if you know where to look. [MySpace (fan site)]
*I found Pitchfork's Dinowalrus review extremely amusing. That fact that Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal - a fan of people like Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors and St. Vincent - didn't care for them is probably a stronger recommendation than any I could offer. Dinowalrus fucking ROCKS.