It is Inauguration Night, and you are jubilant but trepidatious, devout in your joy but still somehow disbelieving, and you’d like to be out among other tentatively celebratory people without necessarily having to talk to them, or even see their faces, really; this moment of flagrant public zeal feels distinctly private. You want to revel in the moment without getting all ostentatious or smug about it, in other words. To Bushwick, then, for a Todd P show at the delightfully decrepit Market Hotel, nearly pitch-dark save for the ambient glow of open cell phones, crowd interaction bluntly discouraged by a rickety PA that at the moment is blasting ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” for some reason, the wall behind the makeshift stage more or less just an upturned mattress or two. Headliner: Fucked Up. (Or if you’re the Times, a “punk band from Toronto, with an unpublishable name.”) Perfect.
The mood is victorious but ever-vigilant. Pink Eyes, our shirtless, glowering, but endearingly chatty 310-pound frontman (he had specified his weight to explain why, contrary to the crowd’s demands, he refused to do chin-ups on the naked lighting fixture hanging delicately above him), begins his evening of banter on a triumphant note (“We watched Obama do his speech from a McDonald’s. What’s more American than that? Other than invading Iraq?”), but it steadily grows grimmer and angrier; he dedicates “Police” to the poor unarmed guy shot dead on an Oakland BART platform early on the morning of New Year’s Day by a transit cop, “his hands behind his fuckin’ back,” Pink Eyes reminds us. “Nothing changed today.”
The silver-lining rallying cry on both of George W. Bush’s own Inauguration Nights was that tired old saw about punk and hardcore flourishing during repressive Republican administrations, but this presupposes that the music is only good for sneering, hapless, reactive pissing and moaning; that it can rage against machines but not create and maintain its own. Know this, snarling frontmen stalking delightfully decrepit underground venues and Warped Tour side-stages alike: Your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. Fucked Up’s music is elegantly brutal and dazzlingly complex—every track on albums like 2006’s Hidden World and last year’s The Chemistry of Common Life indulges more violent subplots and inspired digressions than entire albums from the underground-punk golden age that clearly inspired it. Chemistry‘s “Crooked Head” is absolutely incredible, a muscular, mesmerizing, oddly timed drumbeat overwhelmed by three blaring guitars and gradually coalescing into a brilliantly blunt chorus: the title phrase, barked over and over and over. I could listen to it on repeat for days.
For his part, Pink Eyes is a world-class, throat-shredding barker, but onstage he’s also warm and goofy and appealingly earnest, with the build of a professional wrestler, the personality of a gregarious radio DJ (he calls out each song’s title as it begins, even though his throat-shredding bark renders some of those titles unintelligible), and the soul of a punk-rock know-it-all; he underscores the image driving “Black Albino Bones” by shouting, “This next song goes out to anyone who collects records. It’s a horrible disease. Thank God I’m having a baby.” The urge to climb him is too much for some Market Hotel patrons to resist; during a particularly ebullient “Crooked Head,” a few of them are somewhat delicately body-slammed in return. But at heart, he’s a yapper, not a fighter. We learn what the band listened to in the van on the way here (AFI). When a momentary power failure paralyzes the whole left side of the stage—that three-guitar lineup seems pretty excessive until two are forcibly silenced—he switches to drums for an impromptu tribute to Chain Gang, a/k/a “the best New York band of all time.” He also threatens to lead a cover of Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn,” and then, during the encore, does.
Tonight’s show overall is a volatile, poorly lit, implicitly dangerous, graphically violent affair, and at first, pure macho catharsis is all you could ask for—or get—from it. The previous set, by Pennsylvania garage-punk thrashers Pissed Jeans, is lurid and cacophonous and fantastically inarticulate, with frontman Matt Korvette howling unintelligible atrocities (in 45 minutes, I understand exactly one line: “I got something to tell you”) and occasionally punching one of Market Hotel’s plywood walls, which is probably the quickest and most efficient way to exit the venue. Fucked Up traffic in that same sort of raw aggression, but while that unpublishable band name betrays a definite doomsaying bent, their own fantastically physical live shows are distinctly borne of joy, not rage—all those broiling, flailing mosh pits are just the most practical and direct way for all of us to get to know each other a little better.
And just in time. “Nothing changed today” is a much more accurate statement on Inauguration Night than “Everything changed today,” but that doesn’t make it true, exactly: Now, politically radical punks of this ilk have a little less to complain about and a whole lot more to actually do—namely, inflame and inspire the coalition of like-minded, previously marginalized progressive sympathizers who, if properly mobilized, might actually change everything, if you could somehow sustain their joy but erode their cynicism, and coax them out of the darkness and into a light not cast by their own cell phones. Two solid hours of “Crooked Head” on repeat is a fantastic first step.