First I didn't know who Bloc Party was. Then I was happy that they were coming to town. Then I was sad because I was going to be out of town. Then I was happy because I was going to be in town. Then I was sad when I learned it was sold out. I'd only known this band existed for three weeks and they've already inspired an emotional rollercoaster ride. Since it seemed I was already heavily invested in the show, I decided I'd just arrive before the doors opened, hang out, buy a ticket from a scalper on the street, and skip merrily into the show when the doors opened – it's never been much of a hassle to buy a ticket at The Paradise.
Of course it was a hassle. I had barely parked my bike before I was asked for tickets from two separate parties. Seeing they had the approach from the east covered, I moved to secure the less-used western front. After 20 minutes, I knew all the other players looking for tickets. This turned into a bit of a cat and mouse game as we ebbed further down the block to be the first person to accost apparent indie rockers for their mythical extra ticket. For over an hour, I annoyed nearly every passerby, earning strange looks from most and conciliatory head shakes from others. I decided 8pm would be my cut off point. At 8pm the doors would have been open an hour, the club would probably already packed, the first band would be beginning, and it just wasn't worth it to go in any later than 8pm.
It was at precisely 8pm that three collegiate sorts decided to give up on the show and sell the two tickets they had.
"Did you still want a ticket?"
"Yeah. How much you want for it?"
"I don't know, twenty-five or thirty dollars."
Nodding, "I'll give ya twenty-five."
The guy earned a ten dollar profit on the exchange, and I earned the right to stand in the slow-moving queue to get into the club. Because of a shooting outside the club about two months ago, The Paradise has been searching and wanding everyone coming into the club. Like most security measures, the venue's half-hearted screening is largely for show. I opened the top of my camera bag, they ran the metal detector over my waistband, and in I went.
Also a note to the counterfeiters: the club now scans Ticketmaster tickets rather than ripping them.
I walked into the club during the opening band's first song. For a sold-out show, the club was shockingly empty. There were still seats along the undesirable sides of the club, and I was able to stand in the second "row" in front of the stage. Although I had to shoot between bobbing heads, I was feeling much better about my late arrival and the 66% mark-up I had paid for my ticket. I readied my gear and turned my attention to the band.
French Toast is undeniably a duo with a pedigree. Qualifiers such as "ex-Nation of Ulysses," "ex-The Makeup," and "touring member of Fugazi" not only earn the band press, but also hint at the quirky indie and punk that French Toast trades in. If most post-punk revival bands wear their influences on their sleeves, French Toast has made a whole coat from theirs. Each song has a different feel, as if one track is culled from a Magazine album, and the next from Wire. While this doesn't explain for the vast sampling from post-punk's heyday, some of the band's schizophrenia may be the result of having two primary songwriters. The band's sonic differences are further highlighted as the duo trade roles throughout the set. The members configure themselves as drum and bass, drum and guitar, or guitar and bass, and each player takes his turn at the microphone to lead his compositions. Each assemblage is augmented by a drum machine or other sampled and sequenced sounds to add depth. However, each of these restructurings – and the required electronic reconfigurations – was painfully slow, forced, and disjointed. Watching players beholden to unrelenting, taskmaster electronics is actually quite disheartening
I wondered why the duo didn't simply fill out their lineup with another player, avoid the musical instrument fire drill, ditch the sequencer, and present the material in a more human way. On the band's latest CD (In a Cave 2005 Dischord), the songs are more homogeneous and organic, and the album flows well. Why, then, make the performance so cold and disorderly? Is this the band's intent? If so, this proved to be the band's third strike with the audience. While the attentive crowd may have waited through long pauses for instrument changes and accepted songs that were tight, jerky, and danceable placed next to those that were dark and complex, they were unwilling to bear the disengaged aloofness the artistic duo projected. When recorded, where the downsides of the band are negated, French Toast shines. On stage, it was a band the audience wanted to like much more than they were actually able to.
Following the pick-and-choose incongruity of French Toast was the much glossier approach of The Ponys. While this quartet may not have the pedigree or the quirky vision of the opening act, it perfectly blends my favourite elements of post-punk. Too many bands revel in Joy Division or miss the mark trying to resurrect Gang of Four, but The Ponys find inspiration in the perfectly fractured pop of Television, Pere Ubu, and a host of forgotten should-be-giants that were active on the Stiff Records roster nearly twenty-five years ago. Guitarist/vocalist Jered Gummere's yelps are decidedly Anglicized – which is a tad annoying for a band from Chicago – but once you decide to embrace that affectation, the passion of his delivery is undeniable. Songs that might only be pop songs were transformed into edgy rockers by the playful spite of his intonation. Other songs were unmistakably bolder, designated by drummer Nathan Jerde fluidly flailing about his kit while Gummere and guitarist Ian Adams punch out power chords with a sense of purpose reminiscent The Stooges. I believe it's this tenuous connection that earns the band its link to the garage rock revival set, but that association is several generations removed at best. The Ponys better recalls the British mod-revival scene that directly abutted the first wave of post-punk. This was a scene that paid a revved-up tribute to British bands of the 60s, who, in return, were paying their own tribute to the American garage bands of the 50s. Live, however, this comparison seems even more unrealistic as the jangling tambourines and Adams' retro Farfisa and synthesizers are not part of the band's stage show – they're an aural treat thankfully reserved for the studio.
Although musically The Ponys' live experience was explosive, the visual elements often fell flat. Gummere looked stunning in his collared shirt, suit coat, slacks, and hair neatly clipped, but he was required to spend most of the set leaning his tall frame over a microphone. To his right, bassist Melissa Elias walked forwards and backwards, occasionally providing backing vocals or stepping up to sing lead on "Fall Inn" – both done in her best Kim Gordon impersonation. On the far side of the stage, Adams also seemed a bit removed, although I must admit that the bouncing heads of an enthused audience frequently interrupted my view of him. Thankfully the dull lights that hardly accompanied French Toast were a bit livelier during The Ponys' set, adding an under-appreciated element of excitement to the show. If the shaking crowd was my only barometer, the band was quite a hit with Boston audiences.
The love shown to The Ponys should be noted, but it was Bloc Party that had sold out The Paradise that night. During the long, pointless pause between acts, the energy in the audience built towards a climax that I thought might culminate in an explosion (not unlike a mouse at a Ramones show.) Latecomers pushed to the front of the audience, while those already in place bonded over the presumptuousness of these recent arrivals. Later in the evening, tensions would climb higher when several anxious girls pushed their way to the front of the stage, displacing a large portion of fans that had coveted the stage since 7pm. The girls offered no apology, only the explanation that the band didn't want to look at boys in the front row, but rather pretty girls dancing. Although I didn't appreciate the added jostling while trying to shoot, I think they might have had a point. I looked at the crowd around me and noticed I was a bit out of place. The majority of the audience was made up of girls with the big exes on their hands indicating they were younger than twenty-one. As the band played, the girls bounced, smiled, screamed and swooned. I had seen this before in the late 80s when I was required to accompany my younger sister to a New Kids on the Block concert. I saw it again during the Boy Band craze of the 90s, and I even see it now repeated in some respects at the concerts featuring the current crop of emo-pop heartthrobs. Was I standing at the cusp of the next big teen pop trend? If so, how did this happen?
For those unfamiliar with Bloc Party, this English quartet is a cookie-cutter imprint for the current post-punk revival. This resurgence's bouncing rhythms, and jagged, wiry guitar are sanitized versions of the sounds pioneered by the aforementioned Gang of Four, Wire and Public Image Ltd in the late 70s and early 80s. It should also be noted that Bloc Party is painfully similar to peer Franz Ferdinand, although when I asked audience members about the similarities I was told by one fan that Bloc Party was less aggressive, while another fan added "You can't dance to Franz for the rest of your life." This doesn't bode well for the band's (or genre's) musical merit.
So why did I canvass the street for an hour looking for a $25 ticket to this show? Well, despite the band's annoying (but deserved) fame, a saccharine front man who coyly hams it up on stage and fans who seem to care more about shaking their asses than feeding their heads, Bloc Party is divine. The band revives all the hectic bliss of those influential post-punk bands, and builds hooks bigger than the majority of them. Songs are joyful releases of aggression that inspire even the terminally self-conscious to dance around apartments and dorm rooms. Bloc Party is wonderful both because of, and in spite of, everything it is.
22-year-old vocalist/guitarist Kele Okereke leads his band through pulsing compositions with shouted sloganeering reminiscent of early-80s Robert Smith. Musically, each instrument takes a very different role and handles it miraculously. Brit-pop influenced guitarist Russell Lissack is the most traditional of the players, providing a swirling or twinkling foundation to the band's songs. Okereke's second guitar (neither guitarist plays rhythm or lead) work is jagged and provides most of the songs' teeth. Drummer Matt Tong is frenetic. His playing is tight, simple, and obsessed. His constant bounce not only shakes hips in the audience, but also allows the studied Gordon Moakes the room to provide the funky signature post-punk elements to the band's sound.
As is the case with the band's debut CD, Bloc Party's set began with the fast, furious, and funky songs before slowly working its way to the slower ones. This transition isn't exactly seamless. In the slower songs, Okereke is forced to abandon his stylistic vocal bark for a less effective, breathy, round voice. This change creates a numbing drop in energy level – one the audience marked with vocal protest each time Okereke announced the band would be "slowing things down." The dissent was never serious however, and Okereke had little trouble milking gratuitous shouts of praise from the fawning audience. While the band probably should have skipped the slower songs that don't play well to a dance-ready audience, the option was simply not there. To come up with an hour long set (including the encore) the band had to play nearly every song it had recorded. The result, however, was hardly disappointing.
When the band completed its encore and the members had charged off stage, I made my break for the fire-hazard-of-an exit. Once I hit the cool night air, it was still early, and I was still amped. Without having to think about it, I knew I had a great time. Immediately I reported back to my housemates that this was one of the best shows of the year, and it was only later – when I began to catalog and critique the evening for this show account – that I found the annoying foibles I had completely discounted while at the show.
For me, post-punk was always a cerebral event. Gang of Four was to be studied, picked apart, and marveled at. If I was lucky I could learn a thing or two from guitar deconstructionist Andy Gill, but I never considered it to be mindless, feel-good, dance music. But that was precisely the evening's intent, and damn it if I didn't have a good time. I definitely take things too seriously, but with the help of The Ponys and Bloc Party I forgot to count time signatures and decipher guitar tunings and simply bounced with an audience to music that was always meant to inspire bouncing. Being reminded of that fact was definitely worth $25 and a little wear to the soles of my Converse.