I should do more research before I randomly decide to attend a show. When I don't, I find myself at all-ages Christian emo shows. Sure, I should have been tipped off with the show being in a church and all, but normally the ICC just serves as an unofficial all-ages venue, not as a ministry. I guess the faux pas was karmic retribution for trying to be a part of a scene that I have no claim to any longer. Unfortunately, since it's a scene I started (or had my own part in at least) I'm not ready to let it go yet.
The flyers listed a 5:30 start time, so I showed up a bit closer to 6:00 – after all, I'm worldly and wise when it comes to the ways of all-ages hardcore shows and their start times. As I stood outside the still-closed church doors I scanned the assemblage for familiar faces but found none. Everyone was young and squeaky clean, and most had spent a bit too much time picking out an outfit for the show. When the doors opened, I entered the auditorium, made a beeline for the left side of the stage, and continued scanning for friendly faces. After finding none, I resorted to eavesdropping on the conversations happening around me – like that of the trio of girls next to me wearing matching black-and-white checkered Vans. I overhead one ask about the mark placed on her hand by the door staff, a null symbol. One girl explained to her friends that it was an algebra thing for no solution. One of the friends nodding knowingly, and the other admitted to not taking algebra yet. I felt older than ever.
At 6:15 the quartet As Cities Burn took the stage. Like the rest of the bands on the bill, I had never heard them, or even heard of them. If I’d done my research, I would have known that the band is not only signed to an offshoot of the evangelical Tooth & Nail record label, but has also titled it's debut album Son, I Loved You at Your Darkest. Ugh. Thankfully the band's Christian-themed lyrics were generally lost in unintelligible screams, which allowed me to lose myself in tight, melodic hardcore. Brothers TJ and Cody Bonnette shared vocal duties – the first provided impassioned screams and fury, while the second proffered the smooth counter-vocals necessary in the screamo genre. Cody Bonnette also provided meandering guitar leads and finger taps to balance out the metalcore crunch of Colin Kimble's rhythm guitar work. The songs followed the genre's blueprints with small breakdowns, dramatic stops, and incredible explosions of emotion. The band's energy level was high throughout the set, particularly that of TJ Bonnette, who was sweat-soaked by the second or third song. Those of us in front of Kimble were similarly drenched as Kimble's constant headbanging sent torrents of perspiration down his long, blonde hair and onto the audience. While I didn't walk away humming any melodies or singing any refrains, As Cities Burn is some pretty good stuff.
After a very short fifteen-minute set change, the four members of Seattle's Gatsby's American Dream were up. The band's sound is similar to openers As Cities Burn, albeit watered down for easier digestion. Nic Newsham's sung vocals are practically flowery when compared to the evening's previous vocalists, and Bob Darling's guitar is similarly themed – focusing on melody much more than crunch or winding metallic leads. Drummer Rudy Gajadhar's small kit took quite a beating, but his drum work was more brutal than inventive. I found this particularly disappointing, as the band's press kit touts the band's innovative and complex song structures. I just didn't hear it. Instead I heard a band on Fearless Records writing songs for kids who've just gotten over their Avril Lavigne phase.
Newsham, who danced about the stage seemingly unashamed of his awkward movements, defined Gatsby’s stage show. Of course this dorky dance only endeared him to the swooning girls in the audience. When he wasn't dancing, he called for the audience to clap (cut-time of course) along with the band's heartfelt songs. As should be obvious by now, I had trouble stomaching the sugarcoated hardcore of the band, and decided this one was for the kids.
Between sets the audience pushed in tighter, and I found myself next to a new group of boys. One was trying to recruit other eighteen-year-old members of his crew to visit a strip club with him. He explained he didn't really want to go, but it was "a right of passage," then added he "wasn't going to get boners," but rather "going to laugh at them." Man we've got such a screwy relationship with our sexuality. Instead of admitting his interest in the sexy™ ladies doing sexy™ things at the strip clubs, it's more socially acceptable to say he is only going to mock and make fun of another human. Wow.
Gym Class Heroes was up next. This quartet from western New York performs live hip-hop for the indie set. I confess that I've never been a fan of the genre on the whole, and its appropriation by suburban kids just seems wrong. However each punk label seems to have one token rap act on it now, and this is Fueled by Ramen's. Travis "Schelprock" McCoy leads the group with rhymes and flow reminiscent of early 90s crossover acts like The Pharcyde. His mostly positive lyrics are delivered straight and sincerely, but with little charisma. Drummer Mathew McGinley plays snappy rock beats (most definitely not the usual suspect funk beats) on an acoustic drum kit, though occasionally shifts to an electronic drum pad to provide an updated booming bass sound. The band's new bassist, Eric Roberts, laid down compelling and complex runs on his five string bass. Guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo was full of surprises; each song had a new sound created by strummed chords, picked arpeggios, or noodled jazz-inspired runs.
While the crowd around me seemed to know the words to every song, audience reaction peaked during "Taxi Diver," a song whose lyrics are merely emo and indie rock band names strung together. I, however, was most tickled by "Cupid's Chokehold" which features a sampling of Supertramp's "Breakfast in America." Of course I'm old and owned that album on cassette, but aside from the nostalgia value, the song's reggae rhythm with a guitar recalling Zeppelin's "Kashmir" amused me. Dread Zeppelin anyone?
After a 30-minute set, the band left the stage, triggering another shift in the crowd. Not only did the trio of Vans-wearing gals leave, but also nearly every girl who was standing up front followed. An influx of boys pushed forward to fill the gaps. And there we all stood silently for twenty minutes watching the members of Emery adjust their professional gear. Each high-end amp and cabinet was secured in a well-padded road case. Microphones hung over each cabinet as a permanent fixture, allowing the sound engineer at whatever venue they may be at to simply plug in. Despite the small stage at the ICC, everyone in the band wore wireless transmitters for their guitars and basses. The band brought in its own microphones for the show – each wrapped in tape for reliability in less-than-gentle circumstances. The band then installed its own white work lamps to light the stage. A MySpace corporate banner hung behind the drum kit as it had all night. This was a lot of gear, and to accommodate the extravagance, the band had a 10' trailer attached to 40' tour bus parked on the street outside. Everyone involved with the band (and on the whole tour) wore Emery laminates proclaiming their right to be there. At this point, the band is only a few flash pots shy of Bon Jovi's stage setup. When a roadie got a 12" Macintosh Powerbook loaded with samples and sequences, the auditorium lighting was cut, and the show was ready to begin.
The six members of Emery skipped out onto the stage wearing doo rags, sporting wife beaters, and inked with fake jail tattoos. After looking at photos of other shows, it seems the band members have several sets of "costumes" to choose from for each show. I'm not sure of the band's intent with these outfits, but again, white kids appropriating doo rags just make me cringe.
The six members of Emery are recent Seattle transplants via South Carolina. Evidently they set out across the country to make their fame and fortune, and by the band member's accounts, they have found it with Tooth & Nail records.
Stylistically, Emery is an amalgamation of the evening's first two bands. While the music is stamped and unimaginative emo 85% of the time, songs are occasionally livened up with a metalcore-influenced tight guitar crunch or an unbridled screeching second vocal line. The audience represented this dichotomy as well: There were fragile, tight-eyed, wall flowers singing the passionate vocals, alongside of would-be tough guys pushing forward to shout the band's slogans into an extended microphone. Of course there were no real tough guys – these are wholesome Christian high school kids from the suburbs.
Devin Shelton and Toby Morell alternately lead Emery; that is each of them takes turns at lead vocals at center stage while the other provides rhythm guitar. Both Shelton's and Morell's vocals are smooth, passionate, and radio ready. The vocals are also clean, completely intelligible, and parent-approved. Keyboardist Josh Head provides the additional screamed vocals that instantly set the songs on edge – and the audience on fire. This is quite a contrast from his other role providing twinkling keyboard lines, or smoothing synthesizer swells to fill in the band's sound. The rest of the players are solid, but none provided elements that defined the band's sound.
Thirty or so minutes after it started, the band closed with "Walls" from their debut album. The song is built on Head's sickthroat screams contrasted with Morell's sweet elongated vocal lines. A metal guitar lead sits on top of chiming guitar notes, and both give way to a simple hooky keyboard line. During the song, Gym Class Heroes' McCoy joined the band on stage, providing a quick rap in the song's midsection. I was pretty sure this idea had been exhausted with the Judgment Night soundtrack. As McCoy left the stage, the churning audience climbed up onto my back and eventually onto the stage themselves. The triumphant climbers shouted vocals into a shared microphone and then climbed back down. A few drum hits then signified the end of the song and show, and that was it – no one called for an encore and the lights came up. A bit let down, I stowed my camera and walked out the door with the other 200 kids.
As I walked down Cambridge to TJ's for a late dinner, I passed the band's idling tour bus and shook my head. When I go to the ICC, it's to escape the commercial trappings that accompany so much Indie Rock. Instead I found a band with bigger stars in its eyes than anyone I've ever seen perform at TT the Bear’s. Is this what the all-ages hardcore scene has become? Is it all about being seen and not the scene? Does everyone now have a $2500 guitar rig? Do all tours have corporate sponsorship? If so, this scene has nothing to do with the one I was involved with in the late 80s, and I'll gladly give it up to the kids.