The hype around Death From Above 1979 is unbearable. If you can get beyond the silly press about the duo meeting in prison, Jesse Keller's moustache and the whole gimmick that is the duo, good for you. I couldn't. I bit early, heard the hype, watched the video, downloaded the CD, and then took a big slug of Nightrain to wash that slick taste out of my mouth. After that I forgot about the band and looked to the scene to tell me who the next Next Big Thing™ was (if you're keeping track, I think DFA was between Arcade Fire and Bloc Party). I bought my ticket to DFA merely for the opening acts, but even then it was a close call. If I had noticed the show was all ages, I probably would have stayed home and watched The Sox vs. Detroit on TV. I was exactly that enthused.
At a bit after 8pm, I arrived at the club, handed over my ticket, greeted the familiar door gal, and skipped down the stairs into the club. The stage was already lined with kids – lots of them – but I was able to find a spot to lean and, soon after, sit. Close to 8:30 the stage lights dimmed, forcing me to set down my copy of Rick Moody's Garden State and observe, if not interact, with those around me. Everyone was young – very young – with stigmatizing exes markered on their hands. I looked at my own yellow bracelet and then scanned those lining the stage for the same. Nope, just me. I've been here before.
At 8:30, the first of the night's three Toronto bands took the stage. Uncut is a post-punk quartet aligned with the Joy Division side of the current revival. There are few truly jarring moments of angularity in the band's music; instead, the band prefers to build to intensity. Vocalist/guitarist Ian Worang has a deep hushed voice recalling the intimacy of Echo and the Bunnymen, while the twin guitars of Worang and Sam Goldberg either team up to provide dense rushes of sound, or split, allowing one to provide chiming atmospheres or sturdy leads over the other's staying rhythms. Occasionally the bass and drums slip into that tight disco-punk beat, but more often each swings about with joyous abandon. This, of course, causes glorious turmoil; is Uncut a dynamic indie rock band, or is it a post-punk band looking to shake the previously ignored hips of hipster audiences? The answer is obviously both, and the band is quite adept at servicing the needs of each crowd – particularly when additional percussion tracks or synthesizer swells are added. Unfortunately, on stage the band seemed unsure. In front of the bright stage lights – and without some of these layers to hide behind – the band was tentative or downright reserved. The highs of the band's songs never achieved the boiling point required to reach the apathetic crowd. Additionally, neither guitarist was willing to play the charismatic frontperson in what was a set littered with long pauses. Audience members willing to do the work themselves were rewarded by a set of enveloping indie rock punctuated with sly post-punk aggression and big hooks. All of this came together in the band's closing number (the band's theme song of sorts) "The New Violence."
Uncut was followed by fellow Torontonians and labelmates Controller.Controller. Controller.Controller's sound is a direct recreation of the danceable post-punk of the late 70s and early 80s, meaning audiences can't gush about the groundbreaking combination of sounds in its music, or even the band's timing. However, we must admit that Controller.Controller is incredibly apt at its ape. So while the band jumped on the disco-punk bandwagon, it quickly beat it into submission, and, remarkably, is now poised to own it.
As the genre dictates, the band's music is built upon drummer Jeff Scheven's constant high-hat and snare work and is defined by the funky rhythms of bassist (and founder) Ronnie Morris. Guitarists Colwyn Llewellyn-Thomas and Scott Kaija traded wiry call-and-response licks in extreme stereo around Nirmala Basnayake's emphatic vocals. Her verses are often spoken through a sneer, while choruses erupt with the wild, fluid energy of The Slits' Ari Up. Basnayake's vague, jittery lyrics are a call to arms, inspiring an army of Canadian indie rockers with south-facing barbs like "You wanna hear about parallels/ How about the 49th/ What keeps you down there?/ What keeps you up at night?" With microphone in hand, she stomped and strutted about the stage, shaking her hips, tapping her Converse All-Stars, and coyly playing with the wide neck of her black t-shirt. Her energy was matched by that of Morris, who marched around the stage with his knees high and in time with the high-hat. Morris proudly wore a P.I.L. shirt, further illustrating an already obvious influence. Controller.Controller did everything right yet the audience remained stiff. Using the expert medical training I received from television dramas, I pronounced the audience dead.
When Amherst's Read Yellow took the stage, my diagnosis was proven premature. For as long as I have been in Boston, Read Yellow has been on the verge of something big. With the release of last year's Radios Burn Faster on Fenway Recordings, a national and European tour and non-stop east coast and Canadian touring, the band has positioned itself for explosion.
Read Yellow (pronounced as "red" not "reed") is fronted by vocalist/guitarist Evan Kenney, who is flanked by guitarist Jesse Vuona and bassist Michelle Key, and backed by drummer Paul Koelle. Once accused of riding the garage rock revival, it's now clear that Read Yellow's tight chaos owes more to the focused post-hardcore passion of Fugazi than the reckless abandon of The Stooges. When the band does rev into high gear, it's not the brutish garage set I hear, but punk and the high energy of anthemic Avail. Working to categorize the band is immaterial however, as the key to the band's success isn't its musical subtleties or influences or even its music, but rather its high-energy stage eruption.
The band's first song had barely begun when Kenney made his first trip to the edge of the stage to entice the crowd. Whether returning to posture for rock guitar solos or to share his microphone with the crowd, Kenney played to the audience the entire set. Several times, in fact, he played in the audience, venturing into the fray with his guitar. When the band wasn't able to take the show to the crowd it brought the crowd to the show; Kenney passed his guitar into the audience once, and several other times handed the audience Koelle's crash cymbal and drumstick. When on stage, Kenney and Vuona frequently fell to the floor, rolling in the chaos pioneered by the screamo bands. As if the band's normal level of excitement wasn't enough, the quartet's stage show was infused with two bonus performers: "Buzz" (aka Robert Larson) of Dead Sexy, who played tambourine, added backing vocals and jumped around in much the same capacity as Avail's Cheerleader Beau Beau, and Taina Vargas, a lovely belly dancer who was surprisingly adept at shimmying to the Mercurial pace of the band's music.
When the band completed their set with fan-favourite "Model America," I began feeling sorry for Death from Above 1979: it must be frustrating to play a show and have the local tour support show you up. I couldn't imagine a band, much less a duo, being able to bring the same amount of power to the stage, to enliven the audience that same way, or fill the club with music so thick and stimulating. Again, all of my suppositions were wrong.
Death From Above 1979 is Jesse F. Keeler on bass and occasional synthesizer and Sebastien Grainger on drums. Grainger carries the majority of the vocal duties. As a mere duo, the band is gloriously limited in what they can do. With that reduced pallet, they've been able to focus on a few things and do them exceptionally well. First, Keller's bass: On the band's debut album You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, Keller's bass work is aggressive but ultimately bouncy and danceable, resembling The Faint. However, on stage his bass roars with the fuzz of Sabbath's "Supernaut," or, on the double time rockers, reminiscent of Slayer's hammered guitar leads. His sound is huge and easily enveloped the sold-out room. Grainger's drumming is tight and succinct, relying on the high-hat and snare disco-punk beat accented by his kick drum. His effected vocals drip with a sort of arena metal sleaze that reminds of me of Billy Squier or even David Coverdale/Robert Plant. His lyrics are sexual, and the mere mention of provocative titles like "Sexy Results" and "Pull Out" delighted the tittering all-ages crowd. Grainger attempted to explain the meaning of the latter, but soon gave up when he realized there was no way it could be done in a PG way, nor was there really any reason to elaborate when the title says so much already.
I maintained my position up front as DFA took the stage, but was unable to take many pictures due to the constant pushing, falling and swaying of the crowd behind me. Soon I had to set my camera down on the stage and brace myself against the rush of the boiling audience. With my hands pressed firmly upon the stage, my body doubled over at the waist and various sweaty bodies pressed against my back, I wondered if I was at a concert or a Turkish bath. Those around me seemed similarly pained as we tried to enjoy the show but instead focused on simply remaining upright. There was no space for dancing; in fact, the guy next to me spent a good portion of the show with his feet off the ground, suspended between the pushing masses. This was the most confining and compact show I'd been to at The Middle East, upping the ante from the previous highs of Turbonegro and Trans Am.
Several times I thought about making my way to the back of the club – to water, to personal space – but there was no clear path. Each time I decided to stick it out for another song and then reassess my chances for escape then. Although this position was painful, it did afford an excellent view of the jocular duo as they addressed the crowd with self-effacing stories of previous visits to Boston. Despite the large adoring crowd, the band could almost be called "down to Earth," which gave me pause to readdress my early prejudices. While the hype is still unbearable, the duo seemed genuine and unfazed by its own eminent stardom. I'm not sure I would have been able to discern that subtlety from the back of the club; this made the bruises already beginning to surface on my thighs a little less irritating. It also helped make the evening much better than ever could have imagined.