A few months ago I made a pledge to attend one random concert a month – a show featuring bands that I had never seen live nor listened to before. While this is generally pretty easy pledge to keep, this week, when I'm in New Jersey for work and every band is 1500 miles away at SXSW, every show I could find met my criteria. In fact, a random Thursday-night bill at Asbury Lanes in Asbury, NJ allowed me to up the ante, and see bands whose names I had never even seen before.
Asbury Park is a rundown blue-collar dump of a town, and Asbury Lanes makes the city look good. For my Chicago readers who grew up with all-ages pop punk shows at the Fireside Bowl, same theory – an aged bowling alley in a part of town that has seen better days that has either reached out to or acquiesced to the punk rock kids. Here there is bowling – even during the shows – but the lanes are always dark with only the pins illuminated. You rent shoes, but bowlers wear them outside to smoke, and show-goers dance on the lanes with their boots during the bands. A DJ spins music. Good music. Great music. I had forgotten what a positively epic song Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" really is. And that "Brass Knuckles" track by Personal and the Pizzas has just been added to my shopping list. It's punk rock, and I hear so little new punk rock nowadays. I pondered this as I reclined on a ripped vinyl couch listening to the music, taking notes, observing the crowd, and it quickly felt like home. Why is it that Kansas City doesn't have any punk rock bars? We've got our share of art punk kids creating crazy noises in basements, and we've tons of the depressed over-the-hill alcoholic cowpunks who sit in dive bars sliding quarters they don't have into the jukebox so Hank Williams can keep them company, but no punk rock bars. Kate says all the punks of means make their way to Chicago, and those without, well, those are the ones sitting on bar stools at Dave's Stagecoach Inn with Hank.
At 9:40, a woman that was more black boots and white coat than anything else, lifted a guitar strap covered in skulls over her head and shouted into the microphone "Whether you like it or not, we're Mannequin Pussy." The woman is Marisa Dabeast, the guitarist and vocalist of the provocatively named NYC duo. Her partner, drummer Athanasios Paul, responded by obediently clicking the band to life. Dabeast's screams are matched by the constant power chords she coaxes from a cheap electric guitar seemingly wounded by a DOD distortion pedal. The two (her screams and her guitar) fought for dominance throughout the night. For a bit it seemed as though her voice had won by shifting to a shriek in the highest register, a move which may or may not have been responsible for a broken guitar string, but a borrowed guitar renewed the rivalry with a nasty fuzzed out sound that put the earlier guitar to shame. Paul's drumming never entered into the battle, but instead stayed in the background (literally) providing simple supportive beats. The bands short songs (none were over two minutes) were hit and miss, but a curiously deconstructed cover of "Do You Love Me?" conspicuously lacking backing vocals, exemplified the band's DIY approach to punk.
Mannequin Pussy's 25-minute set was followed by a 15-minute set change while instruments (but not drums or amplifiers) were swapped out. The DJ played Angry Samoans "You Stupid Asshole" and I sang along like it was the '80s. While my '80s memories are certainly peppered with Human League and Duran Duran, they also bristled with Black Flag, Circle Jerks and X. I wonder why I never hear "Johny Hit and Run Paulene" when clubs pay homage to the Reagan decade?
At 10:20, a group of bowlers near me high-fived after a strike, while those at another lane set down their bowling balls and climbed onto the stage. A stage, I should add, that sits in the middle of the alley, permanently straddling four lanes that were dedicated to ten pin in brighter days.
As if in direct response to my art punk musings only an hour ago, the four members of Mindtroll materialised on stage with a toy megaphone, an accordion, sparkly hot pants, a synth pad, a koala bear hat, and a drummer who stands when she plays (at least some of the time). While a serious band of serious musicians might be able to include one of these items, the presence of the lot suggests something is coming at the audience from way out in left field.
Mindtroll is a New York City four piece led by the witty banter, absurdist lyrics, and sharp barely-sung vocals of Niina Pollari. Both accordionist Eve Bates and bassist (sometimes guitarist) Zane Van Dusen provide backing vocals that could overlap, take the lead, or, in one curiously out of place, but quite beautiful instance, harmonise. Bates's vocals flow a bit more than Pollari's, rounding off some of the shouted edges. Meanwhile, Van Dusen's vocal offerings carry all the subtlety of a Jack-in-the-Box, occasionally springing into the forefront, shouting histrionically. Ellen LaVeyra's drumming is simple, and perfectly suited to the band's garage rock punch. Think punk from the northwest in the early '90s – the abandon of bands on K, maybe some of the feminine bite of Kill Rock Stars – but with the self-aware camp of the The Dead Milkmen or The B-52s.
Between songs, Pollari and Van Dusen riffed on popular culture, often prodded by friends bowling in the next lane. Throughout the set, songs were retitled to fit a particular joke that amused the band at the moment, while others were left with the titles that tickled the band at the time they were written. The waggish "Teen Sex," "Satanic Teens," "Baby Sluts," and "Dick Pic!" were all part of the set. This is the band's raison d'etre.
However, while silly lyrics, electronic beeps, and white girl rap reigned supreme, there are hints that the band can play it straight. New single "German Song" is a just an accordion solo past the punk rock of Heavens to Betsy. If you scrubbed the zany off this band, and poked them with a stick, I imagine you'd find a foursome capable of riot grrrls' furious pop.
After the quirky affectation, curious instrumentation, and ebullient youth of Mindtroll, headlining trio Black Wine's professionalism seemed positively dull. This New Jersey threesome is older, wiser, has better gear, and a predilection for the music its members came of age with. Possibly due to the band's stunningly short seven-song set, I wasn't able to find many commonalities between songs. Sure guitarist Jeffrey Schroeck's playing was always loud with little need for nuance, Jason Nixon's bass lines were always big and meaty, and Miranda Taylor's drumming was consistently snappy with aggressive fills popping up throughout, but each song had a distinctly different viewpoint to it. It turns out the vocalist is the key to understanding the band. Songs sung by Schroeck recalled post-grunge alternative, the sturdier voice of Nixon had the bite of early indie rock, and Taylor's vocals gave everything the jagged air of Sleater-Kinney. The commonality? The 1990s.
With three vocalists, no one member stepped up to front the band. There was little banter between songs, so when Schroeck announced the band's final number of the night would be a Devo cover, I thought I had surely heard wrong. After an aggressive post-punk retelling of "Freedom of Choice," the band did indeed pack up its instruments and call it a night. It was only 11:30. Is this how all ages shows work in Asbury Park? Is this curfew? Does everyone need to hurry off to their third-shift job at the chemical plant? I've still to much to learn about New Jersey, and I look forward to continuing my research at Asbury Lanes as soon as possible – hopefully with three more bands I've never heard of.