Probably the best album hardcore has ever given us
April 21, 2006
Ten years ago, Avail, a hardcore band from Richmond, VA, played the best live show I’ve ever seen. I was 16, and they were playing at the Black Cat in DC; my dad drove me and a few of my friends down and then picked us up at 11:30. The pickup time was supposed to be 11, but once everyone realized that the show wasn’t going to be over by then, I called on a payphone and begged him to push it back a bit. We still had to leave before the show ended, but we got to see most of it. Avail had been around for a while by then: three albums, a whole lot of shout-outs in Rancid liner notes, a rep that was probably peaking at the time. And they were spectacular. Avail’s version of hardcore had a sort of heart-on-sleeve intensity that just barely skirted the whole emo thing (which wasn’t even really a pejorative then) by playing hard and loud and straight-up with big, beery classic-rock singalong choruses and huge, crashing chords. Their songs were mostly about being true to yourself or being from a small Southern city or not fighting or whatever, standard punk stuff, but they did this stuff with a full-bodied force that still feels violently cathartic when I listen to the old albums now. (Jade Tree just reissued the three best: Dixie, 4AM Friday, and Over the James.) They had this innate, magnificent grasp of tension-and-release dynamics, and so the songs would build to climax after climax, welling up suddenly from Jesus Lizard clattery feedback to flattening uber-hooks in the blink of an eye. I don’t remember too many details about the Black Cat show, but a few images are good and stuck in there. The group had a hypeman (they called him a “cheerleader” in their liner notes) named Beau Beau, an impish dude with no shirt and lots of tattoos and one of those long-ass pointy goatees, and his whole job was just to jump around onstage and rile up the crowd and sometimes sing back-up, and I can remember the floor erupting into a huge circle-pit when he traced a circle in the air with his forefinger. I can also remember the mosh-pit, which was already at full-boil, visibly getting more hectic exactly in time with the five-second build near the end of “F.C.A.,” still probably my favorite song of theirs. I remember my friends giving me shit when we had to leave early. I don’t really remember anything else, but it’s enough. I’ve been to hundreds, maybe thousands, of shows since then, and I don’t think I even have the capacity to love a show like I loved that one.
Staggeringly enough, Avail is still around ten years after that show. They bounced from Lookout Records after Over the James and released a couple of pretty-meh albums, the last of which came out four years ago. I’ve heard that Beau Beau dated Lita before she got a job with the WWF. They probably all have day-jobs and kids and dogs and mortgages and everything else now, but they still tour pretty steadily, and they’re still an amazing show. The crowds they draw aren’t as big as they ones they got when being thanked on Rancid albums actually carried some cultural weight, but they still sold out the Knitting Factory days before they played there on Friday night, and the crowd still knew all the words to all the songs. The guys in the band look pretty banged-up and worn-out, and singer Tim Barry said something about how they think every tour will be their last one, but the songs still sound as great as they ever did. Beau Beau wears a shirt now, and he doesn’t jump around like he used to, but he can still start a circle-pit by tracing a circle in the air. I used to sometimes see people cry at Avail shows, and that doesn’t happen anymore, but people still bellow all the words and throw each other around with abandon and launch themselves off the stage butt-first. Before Friday night, it had been years since I’d been in a moshpit that smelled that much like sweat and feet and whiteboy dreads. It was molten-hot inside the Knitting Factory; either my eyes were playing tricks on me, or I saw condensed sweat dripping from the ceiling. I missed all three opening bands because I was busy getting drunk beforehand, but it was still pretty shockingly easy to fall back into half-remembered rituals: rushing the pit, dodging the fat guys, running backwards until I ran into people after getting knocked off-balance, comparing bruises after the show. When Avail’s last two albums came out, I listened a couple of times and decided that I didn’t like them much, but even those songs sounded amazing on Friday night. But the songs I loved the most were the songs I loved the most years ago: “F.C.A.,” “Model,” “Sanctuary 13.” To see all this stuff that felt so magical when I was in high school happening all over again, even in slightly creaky form, is a pretty goddam inspiring thing.