It's cold in Cleveland, a particularly miserable place to spend a winter. There's already a few inches of lake-effect snow on the ground, and I've been unemployed since late October. So when my friend asked if I wanted to go to a free show on a Tuesday night, my immediate response was "absolutely." He said it was at a new place called the Soggy Dog House on the west side. I'd never been there, but had heard the Riot Before played there a couple months ago.
I only found out the night of the show who was playing.
"Really? Off with Their Heads? Why didn't I hear about this?"
"They really don't do much in the way of advertising at this place," my friend explained.
Coming in from the frigid streets, we were greeted by one of the dudes from the Sidekicks, who apparently lives in the place.
"Reverse the Curse is going on now, Cobra Skulls are up next, and then Off with Their Heads. There's a donation jar going around, too."
My evening was overflowing with pleasant surprises! All of a sudden I was going to see Cobra Skulls and Off with Their Heads for free in a charming, classic example of an inviting punk rock house.
By 8:00, Reverse the Curse was already warming up the chilly basement. What I heard lay somewhere between Hot Water Music and Polar Bear Club, with two gruff vocalists hollering over some ornate but understated guitar work. Their arrangements were impressively diverse, ranging from pulverizing and harsh one second to hushed and august the next. It could have easily been a disaster, but their chops were equal to their ambition. Color me dazzled! Apparently, they're from some town in Ohio called Hiram, which explains why I'd never heard of them: If you're from Ohio and you don't live in Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Columbus, you might as well be living in a lean-to in Kentucky. They also have an upcoming show opening for O Pioneers!!! in the same basement on the 24th.
It might be a wee bit late for a disclaimer, but I don't own anything by any of the bands I saw that night -- no records, no pirated files, nothing. I didn't sing along with any songs because if I had ever heard them, then it was while riding shotgun in one of my friends' cars around Cleveland's east side. So please forgive my ignorance. You should be the one writing this.
Cobra Skulls exceeded my expectations like the first time I touched a booby. Yeah, it was that good. A shockingly handsome trio, they ripped through their material with aplomb and enthusiasm, the veins in their necks bulging with effort. They walked the line between Against Me! and the Dead Kennedys so well that comparisons to either would have been forgotten if the bass player hadn't been sporting a New Wave shirt. Cobra Skulls is definitely a party band. They just oozed energy on renditions of "Cobra Skulls Jukebox" and "The Preacher and the Man-Whore." They were exactly what a band called Cobra Skulls should be live: tight as fuck, funny, passionate, and exciting. They ended their set with that awesome song in Spanish about kids in Che Guevera shirts (spare my life, please, for not knowing the name).
While Cobra Skulls is all party, with bits of ska, psychobilly, and folk all dancing on the dining room table, Off with Their Heads is the morning-after hangover. But not in a bad way. Their ultra-depressing pop-punk is the equivalent of remembering how much fun you had last night and simultaneously praying for death as an escape from your headache. The quartet offered no banter, flashed no smiles (except a couple fleeting ones from the bassist), and took no prisoners. They just tore straight through a set overflowing with catchy choruses. The lead singer looked tired, drunk and seething, and he had a voice to match. They had a couple dozen kids politely singing along with by-the-numbers performances of "Until the Day..." and "Call the Cops." It wasn't until my very sober friend absolutely demanded they play "Die Today" that anyone moved around at all. Unemployment unfortunately takes all the joy out of singing "I don't wanna go to work today."
While walking to the car afterwards, I complained about Off with Their Heads' lack of enthusiasm to my friend. I said they looked worn out and exhausted, like they didn't really want to be there.
"Well, what did you expect?" he asked. "They're Off with Their Heads. Did you want them to be all happy? He spent all his money on cocaine, man."
Point taken. Criticisms retracted. This was probably the best show I've been to in a while: It only cost me a four-dollar donation, all three bands ruled, the crowd was friendly, the house was awesome, and it was over by 10:00. Score!