The Strange Confluence of Internet Media, Semi-legitimate Live Music Establishments and Hardcore Punk

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

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Photoset // Voodoo Music Experience, Day 3: 10.30.2011

MyNameIsJohnMichael + The Preservation Hall Jazz Band w/ The Del McCoury Band + Dr. John and the Lower 911 + Morning 40 Federation + Odd Future + Portugal. The Man + TV On The Radio + The Meters + The Raconteurs + Fatboy Slim performing at City Park on October 30, 2011 for the Voodoo Music Experience

[miniflickr photoset_id=72157627898948441&sortby=date-posted-asc&per_page=100]

Voodoo Music Experience, Day 3: 10.30.2011

By now, all music blogs and culture magazines are abuzz about Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, whose set at the Le Ritual Voodoo main stage on the final day of Voodoo was at once electrifying and unnerving. After the group showered photographers with water and unloaded a slew of vulgar profanities at them Sunday afternoon, Left Brain – one of the dozen or so members of Odd Future constantly bounding around the stage – got up close and personal with one particular woman snapping shots from the photo pit.  Even those who escaped with only injured feelings told horror stories as if they’d been party to a narrow brush with death while the rest just seemed flat out, but justifiably, offended that they were the objects of homophobic language and violent behavior.

But then again, everyone already knows that Odd Future is a pretty shocking group. They are homophobic, misogynistic and vulgar; most importantly, they are a band of young, manically creative egos composed of pure, unchecked energy who for the first time in their lives have a little bit of “fuck you” money and the swagger that it comes with, all of which they seem comfortable throwing around with abandon. But don’t think for a second that the members of Odd Future don’t comprehend the implications of their onstage actions or the contradictions of their words – that while Tyler, the Creator accuses photographers of being nothing more than freeriding hangers-on who skipped out on paying entrance to the festival, he knows that journalists have garnered Odd Future the sort of attention responsible for the success they currently enjoy and it’s unlikely that he altogether despises their numerous photo shoots for the likes of Vice Magazine and The Fader.

If anything, the members of Odd Future know exactly how to get their young rabid fan base completely fired up, which they did quickly and continuously. Within seconds of being released of the three-song photo pit rule, they were free to lurk around the area in front of the stage, give high fives to the front row of the audience and crowd surf with depraved indifference to their own safety. With circle pits spontaneously springing up throughout a massive sea of heads and the band letting side stage audience members jump from the stage into the crowd, it became apparent that this was less a hip hop concert than it was a hardcore punk show, and plenty of kids have the bruises to prove it. And while I’m sure it was shocking, unsettling, and maybe even offensive being up in the pit during this outrageous performance, everyone left with more amazing photo opportunities than bodily injuries.

Immediately after, things settled back down to Earth at the Bingo! stage – though only momentarily. When talking about Portland band Portugal. The Man, it’s very easy to articulate why they are one of America’s most talented bands on record. With a spacey glam rock vibe that benefits heavily from immaculately nuanced production, textured and complex instrumentation and some of the highest register male vocals on earth, it can’t be surprising that In The Mountain In The Cloud is a no-brain contender for album of the year.

However, it’s much more difficult to convey – even to someone familiar with the band’s catalog – how unbelievably hard this band rocks in a live setting. A Portugal concert is more than just the normal larger-sound-live phenomenon with more aggressive drums and louder-sung vocals, but rather there are megatons more personality emanating from every member of the band. After humbly opening things up with a relatively restrained “So American”, it wasn’t long before drummer Jason Seachrist began laying on the crash and the rest of the band followed suit in letting the more berserk side of Portugal. The Man hang out.

On such intimate quarters as Bingo! it can be hard to picture a five piece band having enough room to head bang, leap around unhindered or strike a rock star pose, but Portugal certainly used every inch of that stage. With keyboardist Ryan Neighbors practically pushing his rig over has he relentlessly pounded the ivory and bassist Zachary Carothers jauntily jumping around as he showed off a patented punk rock technique, lead singer John Gourley tore through ridiculous guitar solos and perfectly found his upper register. It was almost too much at one point to realize that – through spacey distortion, heavy bass, thumping keys and numerous cymbals – they were absolutely nailing a cover of “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles.

With daylight still looming over the Le Plur Red Bulletin stage, arguably the most impressive DJ of the weekend managed be such without the benefit of a light show, a hype man or any other elaborate electronica set dressings. Alain Macklovitch – better known as A-Trak, the youngest ever DMC World Champion, Kanye West’s influential touring DJ, half of disco house duo Duck Sauce and younger brother of Chromeo frontman Dave 1 – certainly had the credentials to topple headliners like Major Lazer and Fatboy Slim, but it was still hugely enthralling to witness such an extraordinary performance.

Though I’d be lying if I said the technical aspects of scratching and spinning aren’t generally lost on me, there was no mistaking the fact that literally everything A-Trak did on stage was live and in real time, no matter how simple or difficult the maneuver. And though he opened to an unfortunately sparse audience, he quickly hemmed in the scattered crowd of bros and ravers with a string of cuts familiar to the area (a couple of reggaeton riffs, some cut-up snare drums, the occasional dubstep drop, Adele) before unloading a barrage of highly technical, ultra-futuristic electrofunk (his obvious onstage bread and butter).

It’s probably the case that some people didn’t know what they were seeing or how it differed from anything else they’d seen on the Le Plur stage that weekend. But by the sound of the frenzied crowd at the end of A-Trak’s set, it was apparent that by not cutting any live corners he was the weekend’s torchbearer of the art of scratching in electronica, blowing minds as he jumped between turntables like a human metronome through dissected Jay-Z verses and Grace-era Rapture hooks. Authenticity of this sort makes the pay off that much more satisfying when A-Trak decides to give the crowd a jaw-dropping demonstration of how he crushes the competition in a DJ championship.

additional reporting by Matt Rosenthal, who was right there when the Odd Future shit went down

Barryfest at South By Southwest, Part 2: SXSW Is Shallow and Pedantic

Here is part 2 of 2 of Barryfest’s report on the 2011 South By Southwest Festival.  Part 1 can be found here: Barryfest at South By Southwest, Part 1: SXSW Is Decadent and Depraved.

I’m generally not the kind of guy that notices, asks for, or even cares about American politics at rock shows. In fact, there was a time, somewhere between Rage Against the Machine’s second album Evil Empire and, not ironically, when Bono started begging George W. Bush for money on behalf of all 3rd World countries, that I wanted every nineties band to just shut the fuck up. I was naively, doggedly opposed to the joining of music and politics: the stage on which the likes of Zach de la Rocha, Bono, and Wyclef Jean stood was for art and entertainment; the politics should be left to the politicians.

Within the context of 2011’s South by Southwest Festival however, my mindset was exactly the opposite (and probably will be for the rest of my life), as I noticed a grave sense of political disaffectedness that consumed the entire city of Austin from the minute I arrived until I awoke Sunday morning to find out that the U.S. was bombing Libya. During our stay in downtown Austin, we – though a captive audience of listeners and observers – were treated to little more than the so-called “Green Zone Powered by Nokia”, a tented parking lot meagerly riddled with potted plants, that few – if any – of us stepped foot in during the course of the weekend for fear of getting hounded by the numerous entry-level corporate schwocks hawking Rolling Stone t-shirts disguised as Rolling Stones t-shirts.

Not a single band I saw at this festival, not even those bands I’d follow to the ends of the Earth – …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Obits, the Screaming Females – mentioned the earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear crisis in Japan. Admittedly, at a festival like SXSW, where speed takes substantial precedence over content, sets are short and bands sometimes have just enough time to play a handful of songs before getting offstage. However, most of the acts I saw were certainly not short on inter-song banter, and there always seemed to be enough time for a spokesperson MC to come on stage and shill for some corporate sponsorship.

I’m not altogether naive: I realize that gigantic portable outdoor stages don’t erect themselves and that massive amounts of free drinks, trinkets, t-shirts and other swag certainly don’t pay for themselves. For an array of reasons, many of which I wholeheartedly understand, corporate sponsorship is not only inevitable, but necessary. Nevertheless, this weekend the concept not only lingered over every venue I visited in downtown Austin, but often seemed to take precedence over everything.

Instead of even more apolitical statements like “keep the people of Japan in your thoughts” or “hey, just letting you all know that we’re bombing Lybia, which is pretty serious”, what I got from OFF! frontman Keith Morris at the all-day Mess With Texas party was a boilerplate “Did you know?” segment involving the fact that the Bushes and the Bin Ladens were flying on a plane together immediately after 9-11.  I felt thoroughly patronized by what I saw as little more than the aural version of Nic Offer’s crotch thrusting: I am well aware – just as I was 10 years ago – that the unimaginably wealthy elite of this Earth fly in planes together.

It’s entirely possible that I mistook OFF!’s live format – a repeating pattern of minute-long politically-fueled monologues followed by fifty-second songs of gritty, head-pounding hardcore punk – as a sign that the politics of its members had evolved with the times and that topics like the exponentially widening poverty gap or the BP oil spill’s political implications would be more of a priority than decade-old political hearsay. Nevertheless, something led me to believe that OFF! – a band featuring members of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Burning Brides – would simply have more to say.

Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, a group of 17 to 20-year-old Los Angeles rappers, ironically provided no different a vibe than the punk rock bands that preceded them. I’ve heard OFWKTA regularly referred to as the “punk rock of hip-hop”, and I suppose that in terms of running around the stage like nuts, climbing up the scaffolding, jumping into the crowd from twenty-five feet in the air and continually crowd surfing, they certainly meet that standard. But in terms of content, I could hear little more than Cypress Hill hanging out with the lyricist from Lords of Acid.

All of the sudden I was starved for legitimate political grandstanding, the likes of which only Bono or Sinead O’Connor could satisfy, which is ironic because I happen to despise both of those singers’ music. “But at least those goons have something to say, some sort of purpose,” I thought while watching OFWGKTA. “You’ve got a stage, and we are your captive audience at a festival known for breaking bands and rocket-fueling careers: use it.”

It’s possible that I’m fixated on the memory of some sort of unrealistic punk rock paradigm, one in which the hardest, most aggressive and dirtiest noise one can possibly hear comes from calm, articulate, worldly musicians; and one that the acts I saw this weekend could seemingly never satisfy.

Maybe they never should. Maybe no one ever has.  Maybe the consistent changing of the musical guard, an already seismic event that is put into even sharper focus at the critical mass buzzfest that is SXSW, provides perfect fodder for the over-elegiazing of my favorite bands of yore, projecting a dynamism upon them that they may have never actually possessed.  Although I’d swear I’ve seen, listened to, or conversed with bands that reach the high standard to which I held the performers at the 2011 SWSX Festival, I honestly can’t name a single one.  Maybe the standard is unprecedented.  Maybe it’s downright unrealistic.

And maybe it’s better off that any standard a guy like Bono could arguably typify gets left in the realm of overly-optimistic, fuzzily inaccurate memories of the bands that shaped my adolescence.  With America now engaged in three wars and the international community still reeling from a truly monumental disaster in Japan, we are living in strange times – times when politics and music are indeed best left in different arenas.

That being said, if Bono had been around and wanted to weigh in on the news of the day, I’d probably have listened.