Thursday March 13th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
The Eyeliners, Don't Look Down, Park, & Plan B
I don't go to many pop-punk shows. I just don't need to. After seeing The Queers a dozen years ago, neither the genre nor the songs have changed a bit. In fact, I can explain Fat Wreck and Lookout! making stars of new bands only by attributing it to voodoo. What could The Ataris have that Screeching Weasel or The Queers or the Descendents or even the Ramones didn't perfect long before the members of The Ataris entered their suburban Indianapolis high school?
Of course, I know the answer. I'm the grumpy old man who just wants to hear the bands of his generation. The new generation, they want the same. And while the kids who flock to pop-punk shows are well aware of the history that came before them, they need bands that are theirs (and most importantly, bands they can see in smoky clubs on Friday nights). And, to be honest, as grumpy as I am, I can't resist the pure energy and spectacle of a good pop-punk show; I just won't admit it. If you ask, I'll mumble something about a sociological experiment, or tell you how I'd be remiss if I didn't keep up on the state of the genre.
So, as part of this experiment, I emailed Lookout! Records and the members of The Eyeliners asking for access to the band during their upcoming stop in Boston. The band obliged me with a spot on the guest list and upped the ante by campaigning for an interview. I sheepishly accepted, but the truth is I just don't do interviews. What could I ask The Eyeliners that they haven't been asked before? How could I ask them what they contribute to a genre with a grand past and a future doomed to mindless regurgitation? As I hopped on the #64 bus heading into Central Square, I hoped the interview wouldn't happen.
At a little after 8pm I slipped passed the closed door and into the club. I quickly scanned the millers for rockstars and thankfully saw no one from The Eyeliners. Relieved, I sat down in an open chair and played scrabble while passively surveying the sound check commotion. The Eyeliners had already checked and gone (presumably to eat), leaving local openers Plan B to run the soundgal through her paces. For a half hour, if not longer, the two parties tortured each other with massive volumes, repetitive drum hits, requests to swap out DI boxes, and desires for more bass in the drum monitor, or more vocals up front. This was, perhaps, the most painful soundcheck I had ever witnessed.
At 9pm the lights were turned down, merch guys scurried behind their tables, the doors were opened, and fans began to fill the club. As expected, most of those in attendance were young (but presumably older than eighteen). Overheard conversations centered on alcoholic adventures, movie quotes, and complaints from grrls about boys who just couldn't seem to be faithful.
As the 10pm scheduled start time approached, the audience began to push toward the stage, which forced me to abandon my chair and do the same. Despite getting no less than two drinks spilled on me before the first note was played, the club wasn't full. The crowd was a result of a surprisingly eager audience camped entirely at the front of the stage. Once Plan B began their set, and the core of the audience began singing along to Eye for an Eye (the unreleased opening song), I realized the audience was composed primarily of friends from a full guestlist.
While the pop-punk distinction is completely inadequate in all cases, it certainly won't clue you in on the heart of Plan B's mission. Their music is energetic, sweeping, direct, quick, and expected. Although the rattling low-end (Eric Vollaro's five-string bass and Rob Maloof's seven-string guitar) carried nuances of AFI's polished hardcore, the band was certainly pop with guitar solos and peppy verses flanked by sing-a-long choruses.
Singer Billy Silvestri jumped, spun, and danced about the stage clutching his cordless microphone as he tirelessly worked the obsequious fans. Both Vollaro and Maloof were also untethered and used their wireless status judiciously. After seeing Vollaro soundcheck from near the sound booth, I was worried there was a predisposition to wander about the audience. Thankfully the band kept the show on the stage, and kept the audience enthralled.
For better or worse, Plan B reminded me of a similar show I saw in 1994 in a small Chicago bar called Thurston's. Opening for Samiam was band of cute guys (check), playing professional gear (check), with catchy songs (check), all with great charisma (check). At the time no one in the audience had any idea who the band was, and I remember wondering how an unknown band got so plastic and slick. The band was Blink 182.
Is there a similarly bright future for Plan B? I don't think so. Before the show the band argued incessantly. The culmination of one incident left Maloof whining that he just wouldn't play if someone else didn't drive to the store to buy replacement strings for his guitar. Futhermore, a sticker proclaiming Your Band Sucks stuck upon that guitar exemplifies an attitude that, although it may not be a complete preclusion to success in the scene, definitely should be.
When the stage was handed over to Illinois' Park, a palpable attitude change permeated the club. Most visibly that change manifested itself in the audience; Plan B's goodtime party fans vacated the club (and presumably the venue) taking with them the Jnco Jeans, big hair and wrap-around backless tops that previously clogged the area in front of the stage. This opened up the floor to hipsters in studded belts, tight shirts, denim jackets and the classic converse all-star. It also allowed room for the social miscreants and documenters with their shaggy haircuts, and fashionless, ill-fitting t-shirts. These are the kids with the cheap cameras, the big ideals, and the zine tendencies. Secretly these are the kids who keep the real scene alive. If the members of Park were in the audience, they'd fall somewhere in the middle.
Park is one of a score of similar bands that dot the Midwest. These bands cut their teeth on punk, bonded in the hardcore scene, and embraced emo, but never quite bought into indie rock. They continue to play basement shows (even prefer them), still sleep on floors when touring, and have never thought about having a video on MTV. Generally they work with a million small labels run by friends, and appear on every comp they hear about anything to get their music heard. A few thought they could make a living with their music, and so they left the small labels run by friends to move to larger ones who professed a belief in their music and the ability to take the band to the next level. Once there, the bands ultimately collapsed. These bands are confused (at a minimum) by the presence of lawyers and accountants in music because, to them, music is much closer to the heart. It's this shift in philosophy that is the second, more subtle but more important, change.
Demonstrating more than supposed ethos, the band is able to back up their convictions with dynamic and aggressive rock. There are jerks and stops, but nothing grating or grinding. The band may momentarily focus on a dissonant chord, treading just long enough to snap your attention to a rhythm, but soon they're off to the next soaring guitar lead. While Park's songs do contain structure and never drift into experimentation, their songs aren't exactly pop either. Whether you'd like to call it post-rock or indie rock or avoid classification altogether is entirely a personal decision.
Guitarist Ladd Mitchell provides direct, strained vocals, but he's not a frontman. It was second guitarist Justin Velenti who provided the homey banter. Unlike Plan B's Billy Silverstri, Velenti made no calls to the audience to wave their arms in the air, and never asked the goading question Is everyone having a good time? Not only did he neglect to whip the crowd into a frenzy, he actually brought the audience down by pointing out (without sarcasm) the location of the emergency exists.
So what's a band like this doing on a pop-punk bill? Truth is they were a last minute replacement for Austin's Dynamite Boy. While Dynamite Boy certainly would have fallen lockstep into the show's rhythm, Park's emotional angularisms were a very pleasant substitution.
In contrast to the anomalous Park, New Jersey's Don't Look Down was much closer to the expected norms of the pop-punk tenet. Namely, their songs are simple, straightforward, energetic and catchy. And while Don't Look Down was all of those things, they did neglect the clean, buzzing, (fender) guitars, bouncing bass, snappy drums, and snotty vocals that the genre has traded on for a full generation. Instead, the band opted for two distorted guitars and a fair amount of noise. This variation created some welcome subtleties in a genre better known for inspiring audience members to jump up and down than ponder the interplay of dual guitars.
However, while the variety of a more traditional punkrock approach might have been appreciated, its presentation was entirely lacking. Don't Look Down wasn't able to muster either the on-stage energy of Plan B or the focused musicianship of Park. Instead they were an awkward band, unsure of their position on the stage and in front of an audience that seemed to terrify them. Vocalist/guitarist Ryan Ogren was visibly nervous, often rambling between songs as he tried to make a connection to the disinterested audience. This young band's take on the genre may make their Start the Show CD a favourite among those who care, but you should allow the band a few more trips away from their hometown before you expect a show that lives up to that recorded promise.
Meanwhile, the three Baca sisters of New Mexico's The Eyeliners will always suffer from the opposite fate albums that cannot live up to its live show. In the studio, the band's songs are simple, the lyrics juvenile, and the music covers the same ground that was trampled unusable years ago. Universally, those outside of the pop-punk world have canned The Eyeliners' releases and even hinted that if it were not for the pretty faces on the album cover there would not have been an album at all. The critics are probably right. Because The Eyeliners follow in the great tradition of following in the great tradition, they offer little to those critics who were already jaded by the genre's shortcomings.
On stage, The Eyeliners is an entirely better animal. Yes, the critics find fault with guitarist Gel Baca for her simple guitar solos on Sealed with a Kiss (the band's most recent album on the Lookout!-distributed Panic Button label). However, no one could condemn her for those same solos when she performs them while holding the guitar behind her back or above her head. The band's music indisputably rests on simple power chords; however, when Gel Baca plays them while dropping to her knees, arching her back, and blowing big pink Bubblicious bubbles, who really cares? Similarly, expected and subordinate bass lines are less troublesome when Lisa Baca is skipping across the stage and sharing impromptu moments of interaction with her sisters. On Sealed with a Kiss, Laura Baca plays drums as well as providing vocals. While we all love Phil Collins, Don Henley and Levon Helm, a singing drummer is snoozeville. To remedy the situation Patrick McVey was hired to drum for this tour leaving Laura to bound about the stage, lean into the audience and raise spirits.
Sadly, this unexpected change in personnel transformed my staked and hard-kept position pressed against center of the stage into that of an uncomfortable cage. Each time Laura Baca would step forward to interact with the willing audience, I would find my face four uncomfortable inches from the sagging waist of her hip-hugging plaid bondage pants. I enjoy pretty gals as much as the next guy, but this left me completely unable to photograph the figure that loomed above me. Furthermore I wasn't able to lean in to find shots of the flanking guitarists either. Realizing that this post wouldn't afford me the detached viewing position required for the sociological experiment, I slipped over to the side of the stage. My coveted spot was soon occupied by the pogoing grrls who had been singing ever so loudly ever so close to my ears.
From my new vantage point, I watched the band complete their set and then return for a single-song encore. Although each song was catchy, most memorable was the interaction between the band and its audience. Any spot in the small club provided view enough to see the mindless and pervasive fun. And that's when it hit me; suddenly it was clear why punks moan about the lack of crowd involvement at indie rock shows.
At The Eyeliners' shows, as with other punk shows, there is still unity between the band and audience. There is a knowledge that the band was the audience last week, and probably will be again soon. At indie rock shows, bands see the fans as consumers to be impressed by the band's ingenuity and virtuosity. The Eyeliners and other pop punk bands can be more genuine as there are no delusions that they are creating grand works of art.
Furthermore, the pop-punk fans come for that interaction and for the proletarian entertainment; it's that enthusiasm that feeds their shows. Indie rock fans seem to be opposed to that interaction. Each attendant is there for a purpose of, at best, a singular connection, or, at worst, as a happening place to be seen in happening clothes.
Of course this division isn't nearly as clean as genres or sub-genres. There are flecks of each band and each crowd in every classification within punk and beyond. Bands such as Park seem cognizant of this, and move freely throughout our critical musical distinctions while others consciously choose to align themselves with the dogma that seems right to them. Those new to the game are bound to find it all as confusing as lawyers and accountants. See, I told you this was a sociological experiment.