It should have been artlessly apparent to anyone who attended Siberia’s Saturday, October 15 showcase of California supergroup Off! and Brooklyn newcomers Cerebral Ballzy – bands who overwhelmingly appear to represent the heart of a new wave of tradition-burning and norm-ducking hard edged music – that it was a categorical smash success for every party involved.
For Siberia, a venue barely out of its infancy, the show represented not just the revelrous one year anniversary that it indeed was, but also the coming out of one of New Orleans’ greatest overnight successes. Twelve months of day-in-day-out work on the part of the apparently very linked-in 86’d Productions and an endless steam of seven-concert weeks throughout the year begat a massive booze and adrenaline-fueled audience in attendance for the anniversary celebration. At somewhere between 300 and 400 people, the crowd could have easily qualified as sell-out worthy; though anyone who knows the short, convention-eschewing history of this empty-room-turned-speak-easy-turned-bona-fide-hall-of-musical-subversiveness would not have been surprised when the Siberia doormen kept allowing punks young and old to rabidly sardine-seal themselves into the bar until you could practically taste the lack of oxygen.
What concertgoers were treated to that night was one of the elite New Orleans concerts of recent memory. The sweaty, shoulder room, tinnitus-inducing party of hardcore punk saw Ballzy frontman Honor Titus command the crowd’s attention with drunken-master swagger as he hung from the bar area’s deer-antler chandeliers and downed as much beer as he sprayed on the crowd, while Off! lead singer Keith Morris controlled the room with his time-honored inter-song pontificating on subjects ranging from rules of punk show candor to Gun Club legend Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Between the giant circle pit, the dozens of thrown elbows and the gallons of spilled beer, the frantic excitement of audience members after the show’s conclusion was both undeniable and utterly contagious.
But the biggest winner had to be hardcore punk. It must be at least a little inspiring for Off!, a band of well accomplished – though aging – musicians, to have the pleasure of playing to an over-packed house at a fledgling DIY punk bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even with a pedigree encompassing the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Burning Brides and Redd Kross, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if Off! had ended up playing to an underwhelming crowd that night. After all, only four years ago Black Flag guitarist and championed legend of West Coast hardcore punk Gregg Ginn played to a crowd of no more than ten people at Dragon’s Den. Embarking on a nationwide tour, it was entirely possible that Off! could have settled into the all-too-common trap of being a supergroup for no other purpose than novelty by trip’s end. However, that appears not to have happened, possibly because old school hardcore’s two-decade absence from mainstream pop culture makes a band like this more refreshing than archaic for younger fans.
I doubt the men in Off! particularly care about the relevancy of their particular lot in the modern musical landscape, as they’ve basically spent their entire collective careers ignoring the tumultuous brouhahas of both the major label recording industry and its periphery feedback loop of professional criticism. Nevertheless, it can’t be overemphasized how strange and delicate a compartment Off! occupies; and even dicier is the growing success this supergroup seems to be enjoying as of late.
So it’s encouraging, if not flat out lucky, that Off! has managed to operate both as a throwback to the days when hardcore shows were always packed because they weren’t competing with fifty narrow subgenres of indie rock on any given night and as a total reawakening of that seemingly lost combination of testosterone, political disaffection and unadulterated fun. And while it’s impossible to draw attention away from the fact that the pure talent bubbling under each band member’s gritty surface is the primary reason for Off!’s staggering sustainability thus far, it’s hard to imagine that they’d have been capable of packing a venue in New Orleans without the good fortune of (a) having been signed by Vice Records, a label known as much for its gravitation towards bands with shock and sideshow live antics as it is for uncovering talent, and (b) having received a great deal of mainstream critical acclaim, namely from Pitchfork Media, a web magazine often reviled for it’s tastemaker tendencies but nonetheless begrudgingly respected for its far-reaching influence.
For all the drastic shifts in the music industry that the internet has caused over the last decade, music heads and showgoers have never been more reliant on an anonymous voice comprising marketers, PR people, booking agents, critics and bloggers – the end result being that phenomenon we modern listeners know all too well: Buzz. Yet somehow hardcore seems both immune and responsive to it. Consequently Off! and – to a certain extent – Cerebral Ballzy are very adept at toeing the line between antiquated novelty and short-lived buzzworthiness while at once being completely unconcerned with any of it. If there is a genuine connection between 2011 hardcore punk and totally unrelated acts like hip hop conglomeration Odd Future (from the outset, comparisons between the two have been abundant and unsubtle), it’s that both play the obligatory mainstream hype game knowing that they write some of the most unnerving and least aurally pleasing music imaginable. But Off! knows, and listeners are rediscovering, that in a live setting with a crowded and rowdy room, there is literally nothing in the universe like hardcore – all buzz aside.
photo credit: Ben Clark