DC Punks Age Gracefully
Story time: I'm not a big one for I-was-there stories, mostly because spending most of my life in Baltimore meant I wasn't there for shit. But I was at the Evens' second show. The first, from what I'm told, was at a DC house party. The second was at a storefront art gallery in Baltimore in front of a crowd of maybe fifty people. The room was tiny, but we all had room to sit cross-legged on the floor. Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina sat on a cramped stage with no monitors; I'm not even certain they had mics. Fugazi's annual free outdoor shows at Fort Reno park in DC had been something of a tradition for me, so I was used to seeing this guy standing tall in front of thousands, belting out loud and righteous songs to mass adulation. Seeing MacKaye tempering his rangy bark into an awkward coo was sort of like watching a middle-aged office-worker playing basketball for the first time in a couple of years. It was weird for me to see this guy in front of such a small crowd; I can only imagine how weird it was for him. MacKaye is, of course, one of the most notoriously ethically-minded people working in music, and I'm guessing he'd eventually gotten uncomfortable with the cult-leader status he'd gained as one of Fugazi's frontmen. So the Evens represent a completely self-conscious shrinking-back for someone who's been a public figure since he was young enough to make a point about how he was too young to drink. In that art gallery, he could've spit and hit the guy sitting in the back row, and that seemed to energize him. A couple of years later, he still seems to be enjoying it, so don't look for a Fugazi reunion anytime soon.
I couldn't tell for sure, but someone at last night's Evens show at NYU must've requested a Minor Threat song, since Amy Farina, the non-MacKaye half of the band said that she just didn't know the song and MacKaye went on a good-natured rant about how people still ask him about bands he was in twenty-five years ago and how the most important music in the world was the music being made right now. Early in the evening, I saw a kid wandering around in a Minor Threat shirt, and I'd love to know what he made of the Evens' shivery, gummy indie-pop. The duo sounds something like a folksier Helium: warm and hooky and still. MacKaye and Farina both sing lead, and her glassy, angelic tenor contrasts beautifully with his defanged pitbull growl while her busy, virtuosic drumming wraps itself around the melodic push of his baritone guitar. In truth, I wouldn't mind if MacKaye stopped singing completely; Farina's got a way of cutting through the air without even raising the volume of her voice, and her deadeyed sigh just kills me. The duo's self-titled first album was one of my favorites of last year, largely because Fugazi's anthemic impulses were still hanging around, twisting and mutating to fit the new format; the sounds were quieter, but the choruses were just as huge. Their new Get Evens is smaller and more jittery, its songs nervously twitching instead of driving points home, but it's still a powerful record; you can tell it's the work of punk lifers even if it completely eschews trad-punk signifiers.
Sitting onstage last night, MacKaye was still about eye-level with me, and he made me really nervous when he called out a lazy review he'd read; I was sure he was talking about my Pitchfork review, but he assured me that he had no idea what I was talking about when I talked to him after the show, which might've been even more embarrassing. In this NYU lecture-hall, the pervasive idealism of the surroundings matched that of the performers: student-organization booths, a make-your-own-buttons table, a banner at the back that read "Make NYU Affordable." Unfortunately, it was a massive hassle to get into that idealistic space. When I rolled up to the venue, a bunch of signs said that general-public tickets had sold out and that they'd only be selling to NYU students, so I had to be the creepy older guy hey-mistering kids in the lobby to see if any of them would sneak me in. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with that problem; MacKaye made sure to thank the crowd for "navigating the twisted and bureaucratic nature of getting tickets into this damn thing." The room was only about half-full, but that smallness actually worked to the band's advantage. They have no PA and no soundman, so everyone crowded in close to hear, and the inevitable singalong entreaties actually sort of worked, a rarity in this town. MacKaye and Farina played through home-stereo amps, and they had reading lamps onstage for some reason. So this NYU lecture-hall ended up feeling like someone's living room, and I'm pretty sure that was the idea.
Unfortunately, it still felt like an NYU lecture-hall when opener Dan Higgs was onstage. Higgs is the singer of Lungfish, quite possibly the best live band in the world, and he's got a scarily intense presence that goes beyond his beard and tattoos. But his solo shows are weird enough to feel like concerted efforts to scare people off: extended jewsharp improvisations, wailing psychedelic dirges, free-associative poetry. The last time I saw Higgs perform, he was sitting on the floor of a bombed-out Williamsburg warehouse, and all that stuff took on an apocalyptic mysticism. In that brightly lit lecture-hall, though, he lost a lot of his mystery. His set was as weird as ever. He performed with a hippyish-looking woman who he introduced as Kiara, and he switched between jewsharp, banjo, and some weird little African percussion thing I'd never seen. She played violin and also that little African percussion thing. They both sang nonsensical drawn-out ragas, and most of the crowd didn't see fit to pause their conversations. "I feel like 1967 is calling me right now," said one kid, and it was a little too easy to see what he meant.
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