Riot Fest | Descendents at Congress Theater | Live review + photo gallery
Cheap Girls are a bit underwhelming live, but it’s not entirely their fault. Ian Graham’s songs are pensive, reflective, often verging on folk music for an economically insecure generation: “I spent all my money to get to sleep/But when I die in dreams I don’t wake up”; “If I didn’t have bad health, I’d have none at all.” Adam Aymor’s melodic lead guitar riffs sound nice in the Congress Theater, but this is a band to be digested over time, over coffee and cigarettes during the day, and a twelve-pack at night. Congress is fine too, if you don’t mind Ben Graham’s bass drum overpowering some of the best lyrics of the past ten years.
But alas, it wasn’t a total loss. The band played a promising set of mostly new material, as newfound producer/Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel stood sidestage. The new shit is good, as it should be, despite obligatory suspicions of weirdness from signing to emo label Rise Records. Obviously, I couldn’t discern most of the lyrics over the booming kick drum. The new tunes carried the band’s trademark melancholy, perhaps into more accessible territory in terms of hooks, but without sacrificing the beer-soaked laments that remain understood without a lyrics sheet in our hands. My guess is, if Ian were happy, Cheap Girls would disband on impact.
The Copyrights are not a very interesting band on record. They are not particularly captivating live, either. But in sheer defiance of their 3:40 PM slot, they rocked the shit out of Congress yesterday afternoon. It was odd to watch a fairly generic pop-punk band out of their standard dive bar/basement home turf, somehow filling the vast expanses of a dad-sized venue with exceptionally tight punk rock.
Though certainly not the best band of the day, the Copyrights may have proved themselves the most appropriate “opener” for the Descendents. They were tight, professional, and impressively low on the bullshit meter as far as drunken banter and antics were concerned—all signs of a good band in this genre. They let their musicianship outshine somewhat formulaic songwriting, their sans-rack-tom drummer carrying a small series of “oh shit” rhythm changes, and set a good tone for the day’s work. Check them out if you like pop-punk, at the very least.
And then greatness happened. I last saw Larry and His Flask at an open mic my band played in Hamden, Connecticut when I was nineteen. The band slayed that little venue a few years ago, and flipped the Congress on its ass at 4:20 yesterday afternoon. The sextet did not dress in a welcoming manner, at least to cynics. “I hate hipsters!” yelled some dumb asshole behind me. His imperceptiveness was betrayed by the first thirty seconds of Larry’s set, in which their upright bass player swung his bass around his slender, bearded frame; the drummer played standing up; and each member of the band somehow found a way of engaging the as-yet disinterested audience.
Larry and His Flask sounds like what I wish the all-too gimmicky Flogging Molly sounded like. While bands like Molly are conceptually cool, the Celtic influence becomes overbearing, and determines too much of the songwriting. On paper, Larry and His Flask is awesome—mandolin, banjo, upright bass, throneless drummer, two guitars and occasional adaptation of horns—but the band remains that awesome in person. There is no gimmick to the music, except the gimmicks of being awesome and rambunctious.
Much of the way through the band’s set, the drummer convinced a sizeable audience of young punkers to crouch to the ground, after the livewire lead singer and batshit bassist carried their instruments over the Congress’s obstructive fence into the audience. “We travel the universe,” he said “in search of people who love to party and have a good time.” He’d found them, or at least a good-sized amount of them, and got them all to jump back up on the count of four. We all raged, hard. And the band was gone as quickly as they’d arrived. Jesus, just check out this band if you get a chance. Music shouldn’t be performed any other way.
The Menzingers, formerly signed to Chicago’s Red Scare Industries, played an excellent set to a mostly bored audience. The fence in front of the stage was lined with some of the most uninterested people I’ve ever seen at a show, and even if they were camping out for the Descendents, I can’t imagine them having a good time.
Despite their tepid reception, the Menzingers put on a fantastic show. Singer/guitarist Tom May bounded around the stage in his trademark, foot-stomping fashion, while Greg Barnett complemented his pipes and riffs. Both singers in this band were record quality on stage, and Joe Godino proved himself as one of Riot Fest’s most solid drummers. The Menzingers are a band so gimmick-free, so pure in form and songwriting, that words become a bit superfluous. But to see them live is to see some truly great records brought to life.
While Danzig threw something of a party for himself on Friday night, the Descendents brought pure joy to their audience at Congress. Bill Stevenson sat atop his throne, silently proud of his victories over obesity, a blood clot and a grapefruit-sized tumor this past year. He was the drummer I couldn’t believe on his records, and was forced to acknowledge as human in person. Guitarist Stephen Egerton looked giddy for much of the band’s set, all too stoked to see kids of all ages relishing in his own youthful riffs. Karl Alvarez was the most stoic of the bunch, punching through excellent basslines with a kind of friendly death stare on his face.
And, of course, there was Milo. Few frontmen have maintained the audience dedication and relevance of Milo Aukerman, particularly in a genre as unforgiving as punk. But talent and charisma tend to go a long way, especially when you’re old enough to be my dad, wearing denim shorts and Croakies to keep those thick lenses on your face. Grey hair be damned, Milo was an absolute machine last night. Unlike Danzig, and unlike recent reports of onstage laryngitis, he didn’t wuss out on a single note of a veritable greatest-hits setlist. His voice is strong as ever, and his bespectacled sneer hasn’t aged a bit.
Also unlike Danzig, the Descendents didn’t leave a single hit out of their repertoire. Nearly every track off the retrospective Somery was covered, complemented favorably by the better tracks off the later Everything Sucks and Cool to Be You. Milo even brought out a cardboard placard bearing the fan-favorite “All-O-Gistics,” and the band performed that “song” without missing a beat. Stevenson raised his meaty arms to the sky between beats, leading the signature chants of “qwaaaahhh qwaaaahhh,” etc., while resembling Donkey Kong and King Kong combined.
“They played everything I wanted to hear!” said a kid I overheard on the Blue Line ride home. They played everything I wanted to hear, too. And they had fun doing it.