Tuesday, August 13, 2013 was Asian Man Records Variety Hour at San Francisco's famed Bottom of the Hill, except that not all bands were on Asian Man (though they were mostly related somehow) and it was over four hours. Still, the point was clear. There is an exciting crop of upstart bands that are keeping punk rock interesting, genuine and at least a little bit dangerous.
The show opened with Sacramento's Dog Party. Composed of sisters Gwen and Lucy Giles, the duo's performance seemed to be something of a debut for the group. While they've been gigging in some form or another for over five years, the teen girls recently seemed to have expanded from a regional California act to a national one, based in large part on their excellent third album, Lost Control.
Following their explosive performance in the tiny Santa Cruz venue Crepe Place just five days earlier, the girls took the stage and started right into their Ramones-meets Weirdoes smashing punk. Whereas so many bands these days have become calmer and more introspective, the girls launched forward with the energy of the original first wave punk rockers, barn storming from three-chord buster to the next.
Although their music was more sledgehammer attack then tactical tapping, it was remarkable at how developed their song structure and performances were. Elder sister Gwen seemed to have a more songbird delivery, delivering innocent odes about pet dogs and boys. Meanwhile, younger sister Lucy contrasted her sister's warmer delivery with a feistier snarl, which was downright menacing on closer "Box of Handkerchiefs." The two styles contrasted each other as perfectly as those of that other famous sister duo Tegan and Sara, or that other other famous sister duo the Summer Twins, or that other other other famous sister duo the Shangra-Las.
Their Santa Cruz show was cramped and packed, giving the girls an energy as well as a central focus. At times, they seemed to be trying to find their center of gravity on the larger stage. But with tunes like these, and bulletproof live shows at smaller venues, Dog Party will be dominating the big stage in no time. Not to be missed.
Next, San Jose's (but now also San Francisco's) Hard Girls played a set showing just how much they've progressed since their last LP, Isn't It Worse. It's been exciting to watch the band evolve since their earliest days. While they once seemed focused on melancholy and introspection, their songs have become more daring, more ambiguous, and fiercer. Perhaps the energy of the now-hiatused Classics of Love (of which is just Hard Girls + that titan amongst jellyfish, Jesse Michaels) has rubbed off, but the band are getting more explosive, though in an entirely different fashion than the modern hardcore update sound of CoL.
For one thing, where the band once seemed to act as a trio, now there seems to be two forces at work. On one side is guitarist Mike Huguenor. Since releasing his solo 10-inch, his guitar playing has become both more unpredictable and jagged. Perhaps influenced by the college rock sounds of bands like Spoon and Pavement, Huguenor doesn't seem to use the guitar as a tool for making tactically planed, sonic attacks: At times he would gnash on his guitar, making the sounds of rusty hinges. At other times, he would pluck and twist, making squeals that were equal parts Ace Frehley and William Reid. Masterfully, he was able to navigate the nastier bits so that when bolted to the confines of the song, he made them that much more dynamic.
Meanwhile, bassist Morgan Herrell and drummer Max Feshbach have glued together and formed a massive sound as powerful as pretty much any other rhythm section you could name. Where Huguenor toys with anti-rhythm, Herrell and Feshbach lock together in forming the band's bass, which drives the tunes forward with a fresh, energetic heaviness. Although this music may be cerebral, Herrell and Feshbach understand that brains and brawn can merge just fine, making this music smart, but at times, brutish as well. Hard Girls are getting more clever and nasty, and that's exciting.
The now solo (but sort of always solo) Jeff Rosenstock took the stage next, sort of wandering onstage with just a guitar and an iPod. While pre-recorded backing tracks can threaten to make a live show static, Rosenstock, through a wildly dynamic and raw performance, made one of the best arguments as to why he should be a rockstar, or if not that, at least featured on Pitchfork.
By now, you've all seen those videos of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, and Ian Hunter hanging onto the microphone like a crutch, seemingly three degrees removed from reality, when suddenly, they ride the music right into the microphone and deliver a performance that electrifies. While those performers were likely on something and Rosenstock was sober while performing, that unquantifiable combination of looseness, timing, and true emotion combined to create a performance confirming that music just oozes from Rosenstock's person.
Crafting a set across the Bomb the Music Industry! discography and his own solo work, Rosenstock was a dynamo. He often would start near the microphone, singing in his perfectly imperfect voice that either conveys words with complete truth or a damn good mimicry of it. Then, just as his songs would rise to a crescendo, as many of them do, he seemed to be pulled backwards by an unseen force. He would snap backwards, and then become consumed by his guitar, whipping his body up and down, his neck back and forth, almost in a spastic state as he would play the instrument, only to be zapped back to microphone to deliver the same sort of climax as Joe Cocker near the end of "A Little Help from my Friends." You could argue that comparing Rosenstock to the '60s legends is hyperbole, but I'd say that you are wrong. Rosenstock's music is soul dragged into modern punk rock.
The highlight of the evening was near the end of Rosenstock's set when bay area emcee Boboso (who is also in Shinobu with Huguenor) jumped onstage and did a live version of the smashing "Sartorial Panache." Honestly, the performance was so wild and off the hook, as Boboso flaunted his Garfield sweatshirt and Rosenstock literally bounced with energy, that maybe they should consider making an entire project out of this. The performance winked at itself with the utter silliness of Rosenstock delivering his rhymes in Raekwon cadence, but was also a pure celebration of the joy of banging, hopped-up jams.
Just when it seemed that set couldn't et any higher, it was jacked up to 11 whe Rosenstock closed out with his cover of Ging Nang Boyz' "I Don't Wanna Die." As Boboso held DJ Coco on his shoulders, Rosenstock screamed out "Yes! Yes! Yes!" He then tossed his guitar into the audience, where 100 some odd fingers banged on the strings, pulled it back, hurled it at a photographer onstage who began to smack away on it, and continued to scream "YES! YES! YES!" Rosenstock then hurled his body onto the audience. DYNAMITE. With this performance, Rosenstock is no longer to allowed have insecurities about his performance, as he often mentions in interviews. This man is a dynamo that eats most other bands for breakfast, and makes it look like a complete blast.
Andrew Jackson Jihad's Sean Bonette had a tough set to follow, indeed. So, instead of trying match Rosenstock for explosiveness, Hard Girls for cold danger or Dog Party for just being awesome, he opted for a more laid-back approach. Focusing on AJJ tunes, Bonette with just an acoustic guitar, performed quick,but intimate renditions of the band's better known songs.
While Bonette was playing, it became clear how lyrically complex these songs are, and how much labor goes into putting them together. As much poetry as tunes, the songs focused on specific details, telling exacting stories which the younger audience seemed to find captivating.
Bonette played some new songs from AJJ's upcoming release, which continued the band's lyrical twisting and perhaps moreso, focused on a form of sadistic humor as well, featuring cruel characters that every so often, would appear from between the passages of self affirmation. That's a trick Morrissey has been perfecting for years and it seems that Bonette is on the same path.
Midway through the set, Dog Party, Hard Girls members and Rosenstock got on stage and played a cover of Kepi Ghoulie's "Highway Man" with Bonette. It was a quiet, understated version that connected the dots between Johnny C and Johnny R.
Bonette finished his set some hour and forty minutes after starting. If that ain't doing it for the love of the art, then love is overrated. (Sean Bonette, feel free to use that line in a song. My cut is 40%)
-!!!ALERT!!!ALERT!!!BREAKING NEWS!!!ALERT!!!ALERT!!!- Mike Park, Jeff Rosenstock and Mike Huguenor are working on a new Bruce Lee Band LP.
CELEBRITY FASHON WATCH: Asian Man Records founder Mike Park has begun to gain a distinguished salt and pepper mix to his tussle, giving him a sort of wisdom even if he is talking about where to buy burritos. Boboso was wearing a Garfield sweatshirt. Is this irony or genuine affection? Does the 21st century even have these boundaries? Bay Area magnate and concert promoter Eric Fanali was spotted in an understated jeans and polo shirt, so as to not betray his influence and grasp on all things North Cal. Jeff Rosenstock wore shorts.
-If you want to have a good discussion about crust punk, black metal and metalcore, talk to the rhythm section of Hard Girls.
-When I was in high school smoking was pretty popular. The fad seemed to die down in the mid 2000s with all those gruesome commercials featuring people eating through pixie straws. However, if the patio of Bottom of the Hill is an example, smoking with the kids is hip again.
-Waddaya mean you don't know who Joe Cocker is?