Friday, September 14, 2012


Anyone listening to Songs From Under The Floorboard lately, or indeed just listening to me over drinks or lunch or in random encounters on the street, knows I've hit upon a heretofore-to-me-unknown scene. There's a thrashingly active punk/post-punk scene happening in the Northwest and Portland is its unofficial capital (though, y'know, there wouldn't actually be a punk capital, would there?) Having only just discovered all this, I feel fortunate indeed that a 4-band live show of some magnitude is happening within a couple weeks of hitting punk paydirt.

So it is that I find myself at an undisclosed locale in North Portland on the first night of September, sprawled on the curb outside for Autistic Youth to find their inputs and crank into it. This show is under the loose auspices of Blackwater, a rather splendid oasis of a record store on Northeast Russell Street (across from the Wonder) that doubles as an outstanding record label that doubles as a record store, or something clever like that. Mostly what it is, though, is the epicenter of this thriving underground network of bands that stretches from Vancouver BC (home of tonight's planned headliner The Spectres - more on that in a bit) to San Francisco and over to Japan and probably Peru and Ames, Iowa. It's happening, really happening, you just don't know it's happening but now you do.

Autistic Youth are as tight as an anxiously-coiled high E string, their slowly (at first) semi-strident punk tempered by our old friend melody, so in that way it's pop-punk put through a jet engine. And oh yeah, loud, did I mention loud? No matter, the classic charge of their brand of punk makes up for the hour-forty-five minute late start. Time, in fact, is forgotten under the assault, and, in my case anyway (and this will persist throughout the night), so is age. There is a feel to this evening that uncannily recalls the shows of my youth, of 1977-79 San Francisco, though, having said that, I think it's germane to point out that the quality of what's on show this evening is (he says controversially) some ticks better than those halcyon days of my youth. The primary reason? Already stated: melody. It's everywhere tonight, snaking through even the most sonic barrage, so if I happen to mention it a few more times, forgive me. Back in the origin days, there was so much emphasis on cathartic release that I believe that having the backbone of a tune was sometimes overlooked. It's instructive that most of what has proven to be rather timeless from those years does in fact have a melodic core, from The Dead Kennedys to The Descendents to X-Ray Spex, and the bands this evening seem to have absorbed that lesson.

Which is why, de rigueur as it is for the genre, I could do with a tad less of the brash-toned shoutiness adopted by most punk bands. Yeah, it's what's expected and, in the case of Autistic Youth at least, the songs are more than strong enough to survive, it nonetheless occurs to me that the songs would be manifestly stronger with less stridency of larynx. Unsurprisingly, it's when the singer ain't singin' that my head is the most lost to the thunder of their sound. I fully realize this puts me out of stride with the vast majority of those in attendance but I can live with that. And let it be said, I ain't lookin' for ballads. Better dead than mellow in this context and I couldn't be happier for the splenetic energy bursting off the stage, the aforementioned quality of the material itself (its abundant melody - ahh, that word again), the whole deal. But my inner ear wants some measure of nuance, it wants, in short, harmony in my head. Nuff said.

OK, for one, I didn't realize Blackwater kingpin (ha! He'll love that word) Keith is the drummer for The Estranged. Shows what a sorry newcomer I am. For two, The Estranged are immediately one of the most - oh screw that - THE most exciting live band I've seen this year. The thrumming dark persistence of the basslines, the utterly charging, edgily atmospheric guitar figures, the drumming crisp and monstrous, the entire package is a relentless assault of the very best kind. If my having a radio show accomplishes nothing else but the championing of this band, it will have succeeded. They throw all the shapes a hopeless post-punk romantic like me want to hear but they're so immeasurably alive doing it that any sense of wallowing in (an adopted) nostalgia is quite simply obliterated.

I fumble with comparisons. The Buzzcocks if they were The Damned if they were Joy Division minus the doom. The Estranged's compactness fits all three, as does their brittle incendiary nature. But still I fail. They sound like none of them. They are the perfect storm of influence refracted via their collective prism of energy, distilled through their own inspired and exhilarating process. I am, in a word, wowed, and pledge to myself to see them live every chance I get and suggest you do the same. Too tired to go? No you're not, and whatever reticence you might have to fight to get yourself out the door will melt in way in wonderfully blast furnace fashion once you're actually there. Do. It.

Red Dons. To dispel a rumor I myself had been guilty of spreading, tonight is not the last Red Dons show ever. It's not even the last show of this tour (they had a date Sep 9th still) but this will be the last tour for a while due to geographic differences, which beats the hell out of artistic ones. Meanwhile, the Dons' set shows again how the night overall could have benefited from a better vocal mix, as the band suffer from this as much as Autistic Youth did. While their mix of Clashy vibrance and pure punk punch carries the night, the (again) shouty vox are so over-modulated that I'm at times surprised my own glasses don't shatter. That quibble aside, the mosh energy is fantastic, folks caroming and lurching about with a giddy abandon, and when the bass player explodes into the audience, it's pretty ace. Let me sketch the participants: bass player, exuberant and committed and looking not a little like Neil Finn, which is maybe so un-punk rock to say that it's the ultimate punk rock compliment. Lead and rhythm guitarist/singer that has apparently inherited Joe Strummer's mantle (though not his voice, exactly). Second rhythm guitarist that stands rather implacably with a Byrnean calm while sending out blistering chords that may well anchor the whole band were it not for a motorized bald drummer that not only provides pummelingly impeccable beats but was also thoughtful enough to invite his grandmother so I'm not the eldest in attendance. How nice is that?

At one point the singer abandons his guitar and plunges into the swirling melee in front of the stage and that, folks, is solidarity, which I point out to, umm, point out that that is what this scene is flush with. Every one of the bands here and all the musicians and fans that I've seen milling around the store and here tonight are to a person a part of a larger whole and they know that, they embrace it, which is the punk rock ethos at its core, the crumbling of which could arguably be said to have been the downfall of the original scene.

The Dons finish their set with a rousing rendition of Pariah, the only song of theirs I really know by heart as I played it the week before on my show and what a triumph of a song and this time both guitarist and bass player hop down into the scrum, the former ending up on his back on the floor, still playing. In other words, a picture book ending.

At the end of the night (despite The Spectres being unable to play due to their bass player not making it across the border from their base in Vancouver BC; will definitely catch them next time) the place smells like a locker room, there's a minor sea of beer spilled on the floor, some friendly moshing bruises are carried out into the night with honor and all our eardrums are dangerously abuzz. Meaning, all's right with the world once again. Amen to that.

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