Pairing Ramones torchbearers the Marked Men with instrumental indie gods Don Caballero was either the work of true bent genius, or a last ditch attempt to match touring bands who just happened to need shows in Philly on a Saturday night. In this day and age of package tours and label showcases, it’s tough to attend a concert where there’s the possibility for real musical diversity. Whatever the motivation, the bill boasted opposing poles of the punk rock mindset: traditional, three-minute puckish blasts versus avant-garde, epic-length audio explorations.
For 20 pulse-pounding minutes, the Marked Men delivered one of the most electrifying like-a-tongue-in-a-light-socket sets to grace the glittering, golden curtained Khyber stage. They launched into their no-frills, all meat and potatoes rock with the one-two punch of the first songs off On the Outside. From there they rolled out a Norman Schwarzkopf-like arsenal of heavy hitters, mostly drawn from the recent Swami Records release, Fix My Brain. Each song brilliantly bested the album versions.
The band bobbed to their musical spawn, Jim Carey doppelganger Mark Ryan lifting off with bunny hops while clutching his trusty Rickenbacker guitar like it might flee his wrath at any moment, and Lester Bangs lookalike Joe Ayoub grooving with monster bass in hand and even more monstrous mustache attacking his face. Jeff Burke belted out his Joey Ramone-inspired bellowing with carefree aplomb, hitting glorious higher-note peaks with an infectious "AAARRRGHH." Skinsman Mike Throneberry flailed away, with every snare crack and cymbal crash perfectly executed.
At their apex, the band bounced about and played so thoroughly impeccably that it seemed they might levitate to the heavens above and not come back. During the demand for an encore (the band appearing dumbfounded that anyone would request more than their allotted set time), one devotee rapturously pleaded, “Play three more, fuck the other bands!” Indeed, this is the breed of adulation the Marked Men invoke.
As the sound guy blasted Misfits and the TV broadcasted Lost Boys (with subtitles!), the man, the myth, the legendary drummer Damon Che took to the stage. He brandished a glass of some choice ale and a cigarette. He pulled from behind the bass cabinet a tremendously wide swath of wood. If you believe the lore (and the photo on Don Cab’s MySpace), Che once nailed his kit to the stage. On this night however he affixed the drums to his piece of lumber.
When Che nonchalantly and shamelessly dropped trou, one could almost hear a bead of sweat smack upon the grimy linoleum. Everyone stood transfixed, disbelieving that the god-like creature before them just exchanged his slacks for a loose-fitting pair of shiny, gray basketball shorts. The Emperor had no pants.
Let’s face it: Che is the star of the Don Cab show. In the old days, he had six-string savant Ian Williams to contend with. But with this cast of largely unknown characters, Che basks in the spotlight all by himself. Not that this is entirely Che’s design; the audience gaped at his every fill. They laughed at his jokes and hung on to his every word (yes, the drummer did the most talking of any band member in between songs, even drunkenly singing a few words to their encore, “Farewell. Good Morning Philadelphia”).
But this is Don Caballero, after all, every math rock-loving drummer’s wet dream.
Such fans surely reveled in stained shorts during the band’s set. Dominated by selections off their Relapse Records debut, World Class Listening Problem, Che exhibited the acumen, agility and ability that made him an indie rock household name a decade ago. After nearly every song, members of the audience ejaculated in such approbations as “That was fucking unreal!” and “How do you do that?” Che was, as Wikipedia claims, “the Octopus.” Arms hammered away in dizzying waves while a machine gun double bass pedal assault thumped against the chests of everyone near the stage.
Che was only ¼ of the proceedings. Defying allegations that they are hack scab fill-ins, guitarists Jeff Ellsworth and Gene Doyle tossed off looping, hammering, pull-off riffs. They looked like calculus professors, yet they shredded like this generation's Malmsteen or Satriani. On the sole 2 pre-Relapse songs (both from American Don), they performed near-flawless renditions of what Williams’s originally cranked out through his trusty Akai Headrush pedals. Bassist Jason Jouver took many inebriated turns at inter-song banter, and held down the ship, perfectly meshing with the spastic Che.
As entertaining as the performance were the verbal exchanges that occurred whenever the band finished a song. Che established casual rapport with the audience immediately, beginning the set by proclaiming “We’re Don Caballero, the band that keeps on doing.” As the night progressed and the heat (and alcohol) had their affect, Che began demanding, “Please turn up the air conditioning. I thought it was understood that the AC would be raised during our set.” Later, the exasperated and sweat-drenched drummer declared, “Don Caballero fans are not sheep. They are the kind of people that get things done. So someone please make it cooler in here.”
Prior to the expected encore, Che collapsed behind his kit, one wet towel beneath his head and one over his face. As he managed to pull himself to his throne, he said, “We’re going to play a very special farewell. And when I say special, I mean special. And when I say farewell, I mean farewell.” With that, they bid au revoir with an extended version of “Fire Back About Your New Baby’s Sex” from American Don.
Who says what burns never returns? Don Cab are back. The Marked Men are out there breathing fiery new life into punk rock. And you will probably never see these two bands play together again.