While I'd have been excited to see Such Gold and their new found sense of fast, technical melodic hardcore/punk precede Strung Out like they've done on many of these tour dates, it was not in the cards for Cambridge. Support instead came from the Darlings, Handguns and Tenebrae–a little less exciting than the band's tours of yore. Like many of the older folk attending this show, I arrived fashionably late, meeting up with a friend at the venue right around the time the Darlings took the stage. It would be generous to say the downstairs of the Middle East was even half full at this point. I wasn't really sure who this band was (and I wager the feeling was shared around the floor), but apparently they've toured with all the punk veterans of their state: Bad Religion; Pennywise; Guttermouth. They played somewhat dated melodic punk with a pretty straightforward rock slant, which nonetheless seemed to get the push-pitters warmed up a bit with some head-bobbing and dancing in place. (My friend pointed to the singer at one point, offering this observation: "You know why Social Distortion plays 12 shows a year in Orange County? THAT guy.") They kicked out a seemingly impromptu cover of Guns N' Roses's "It's So Easy," which looked and sounded competent enough; while the set was far from repulsive or anything, that was probably one of the more memorable moments.
The venue filled up a little more by Strung Out's scheduled start time at 11 p.m., preventing that sad sense of pity that washes over you when it's clear you're watching an aging band become less and less relevant to their own fans. While that might be true to a certain extent in select cities, this was the Twisted in a Suburban Wasteland Tour, where the band would be playing two of their undeniably best full-lengths back-to-back–the sort of special tour where a band's proper draw in the present day is obviously harder to determine. For the record, I'd have preferred An American Paradox in Suburban Wasteland Teenage Blues's place–perhaps with The Element of Sonic Defiance sandwiched in between?–but I may be in the minority here. Hell, at least it would have been a more rounded 10-year anniversary for one of the releases, as opposed to the random 16/14 in place.
Keep in mind, here: I wouldn't place Strung Out anywhere near the top tier of personal favorite bands, but they were a crucial cornerstone to my introduction of punk rock. A friend in high school turned me onto them through these two very albums: Suburban Teenage was the first I listened to, followed shortly thereafter by Twisted. If the EpiFat skatepunk sound is considered *the* gateway entry to an entire world kids like me had known very little about, I was certainly no exception. And while Twisted seems like an insane leap both musically and sonically from Suburban, having only been released two years later, I'd still place the latter in the band's top three (everything else ranging from "decent" to "mediocre"). So this was a tour worth attending despite weak support here.
Air raid sirens played on the PA as the band walked out to warm applause. The pit almost immediately spread out and it was like nothing had changed in the last 10 years (or hell, 15-20 for all I know). I believe the first time I saw Strung Out was in 2002 at New York City's Irving Plaza (their go-to spot in NYC during these peak years) with Poison the Well, Rise Against and Rufio. I was a wide-eyed, naive 16-year-old who tried "moshing," as it were, for the first time, which meant jumping and slamming my emaciated frame into the backs of much burlier men as abrasively as possible. It was quite the rush for someone attending their first bigger punk show (the in-between of local church-held gigs and wherever Green Day was playing around this time), although the appeal of crashing into people as directly as possible was something that wore off well before high school ended. Not so much for many of the grown men here at the Middle East, shoving each other and skipping around sloppily like Warped Tour 1996 never ended. Must have been paradise, especially for those wearing Strung Out shirts, a supposed scene faux-pas shared by one of the band members themselves (given the option, I guess I wouldn't wear a Handguns shirt either).
The band plowed through their sophomore full-length with only a few frills to entertain, like slipping in a glimpse of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (ingrained in my hick memory best by Nirvana's Unplugged, naturally) into "Bring Out Your Dead." Speaking of that song, it was one of the main highlights, next to "Solitaire," of course, and "Radio Suicide." Those tracks logically received some of the bigger responses, though there seemed to be the fair share of finger-pointing and crowd-surfing going on (those participating in the latter receiving a mild scolding from venue staff merely trying to respect Boston's goofy "audience participation" policies).
Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues set list (11:01-11:43):
- Better Days
- Never Good Enough
- Gear Box
- Bring Out Your Dead
- Rottin' Apple
- Radio Suicide
- Six Feet
- Wrong Side of the Tracks
That was a cool 42 minutes, but the real treat for me was Twisted by Design, far and away the crown jewel, IMO, of Strung Out's fairly sizable catalog. (Those choruses! Those melodies! Those riffs! The variety!) The band took a very short break, playing some silly carnival/circus-themed music over the PA. I don't think anyone knew how long this intermission would actually last, because much of the crowd seemed to duck out, perhaps for a smoke break. There probably wasn't even enough time for a full cigarette, as they returned less than four minutes later playing that glorious opening riff of "Too Close to See." While I wasn't too into the occasional half-time application (done both on the last chorus of "Too Close to See" and near the end of closer "Matchbook"), at least the band was trying to mix it up a little bit. They even swapped "Crossroads" and "Asking for the World" in sort of a "Why not?" approach. I was pleased to hear Jordan Burns nail those sick drum fills during "Paperwalls," and the band exaggerate the stop-starts of "Ice Burn" to a neat degree (in retrospect, Thrice borrowed pretty heavily from this song's tone for "Kill Me Quickly," huh?). I think Jason Cruz was getting a bit weary by "Ultimate Devotion," as he spent pretty much the entire song crouching near the front of the stage basically embracing the front of the crowd. He found enough energy to get up and lead the band fiercely enough through the last third of the album, though, with "Matchbook" naturally getting the biggest reaction of the night (and Cruz having to prevent one crowd surfer, an apparent friend of the band as he would make multiple random appearances throughout the set to sing backups, from coming to fisticuffs with someone in the audience).
Deserved shoutouts to both deceased bassist Jim Cherry (most certainly a key figure for the band during these albums' years) and long-time friend of the band, Tony Sly, came during this set. While you sort of had to say something regarding the much more recent news that devastated the punk world, the band really just led a brief chant of his name after "Ultimate Devotion;" better than nothing, one might say.
Twisted by Design set list (11:46-12:29):
- Too Close to See
- Exhumation of Virginia Madison
- Mind of My Own
- Reason to Believe
- Asking for the World
- Ice Burn
- Ultimate Devotion
- King Alvarez
- Just Like Me