A friend of mine is getting old – she's nearly 22. She feels that she's starting to lose touch with the kids – with the music they listen to, with the fashion they wear. When talking to a younger (sixteen year-old) cousin over Easter, she tried to mock the kids' current musical tastes. She insinuated that kids only listen to My Chemical Romance and Panic at the Disco. The cousin sniped back that the kids don't listen to that anymore – they've moved on. My friend was mortified to be so removed. I think of this conversation while standing on the floor of a church-as-showplace, watching bands play music that fell out of favour during my youth, yet surrounded by high school kids soaking it all in. I lost touch years ago, but sheesh. Really? This?
With the promise of Piebald as a headliner, I slipped out of work at 5:30 and made my way through rush hour traffic to Trinity on Main in New Britain, CT by 6pm. 6pm was the posted start time. When I arrived it was obvious that someone was being optimistic if not an outright liar. I slinked up the stairs to an open balcony that surrounded the magnificent show space. The bands would play adjacent to the church rectory in a room built of textured woods, and awesome stained glass, capped off by a vaulted ceiling of exposed, crafted beams set off in a radial pattern. It looked too pristine to be old, but too ornate to be new work. I pondered trespassing around the church, photographing design elements for architectural pornography, but thought better of it when I found a lone chair left abandoned in the balcony.
At 7:30 I traversed the stairs to see the opening band. Call it Arson had attracted a local following of forty, but seemed unsure of what to do with them. After some nervous and awkward banter from vocalist/guitarist James Downes, the band began its short set with "Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty – a song dedicated to "the haters." The song had been deconstructed a bit, and not put back together in a very pleasing way. Odd popping from the five-string bass, fought with the loose tumbling percussion. Downes' Gretsch-as-Les Paul electric guitar swelled clumsily beside the minimal acoustic guitar work of Ryan White. Was this irony? No. Later ringing acoustic guitar and harmonica seemed to cement the fact that Petty was an acceptable influence. Well I'll be.
The band continued with a set full of disparities. Hardcore roots were apparent in a Samiam-styled emo number, there was a raw vocal intensity reminiscent of Bright Eyes in other songs, others recalled the new organic and over-earnest pop of Shearwater, and one song was a straight up country stomper sung by White. The band's fans stuck with them throughout the set, as they mouthed the words to each of the band's songs – including those billed as from the new ep. When it was over, I was positive that I didn't understand a bit of it.
When the North Carolina six-piece House of Fools took the stage at 8:30, I was sure I was in the wrong club. Worn jeans, boots, long greasy hair, and three guitars – had I stumbled onto the set of "Almost Famous?" Is this The Allman Brothers playing at an all-ages show in a church rec room? Maybe.
Certainly the band carried that southern rock theme. Songs recalled that breezy 70s feel with long jamming guitar solos offered by each of the electric guitarists. The additional piano work made sense to me, but where did the Moog flourishes fit in? Vocalist Josh King's tenor is surprisingly strong, reverberating pleasantly through the room. The audience didn't flinch when the band launched into an open, and surprisingly refreshing version of "Hey Hey My My" and even followed the band later when it offered up Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle." Again, when the band finished its set, I was confused.
As I worked to get my head around the first two bands, I could at least appreciate the consistency. The next act, MC Chris, blew that all to hell.
MC Chris, or as it seems he would prefer to be known, Adult Swim's MC Chris, is Christopher Ward, a petite, mush-mouthed rapper in his early thirties. Sporting a black hoodie and wallet chain, tossing in pop culture references about Star Wars, and diverting his raps with "samples" by Weezer and other indie rock artists, MC Chris is the rapper for this scene. His appeal to the larger hip-hop community, however, must be limited to novelty. Even though his flow is relatively quick, his lisp and high voice are nothing but comical. Furthermore, the synth-heavy loops and rhythms coming from his 12" Macintosh PowerBook are amateur even by Har Mar Superstars standards. Despite a lackadaisical crowd, MC Chris pushed hard for audience interaction, and eventually earned it, though not without insulting the small turnout (three dozen stood on the floor, while another dozen lined the balcony during his set). MC Chris is adept at one tried hip-hop staple – self-promotion. The number of times he mentioned his work with Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or Sealab 2021 or other Adult Swim programming is without bounds. He also made sure we were aware of the interviews he has coming out in various magazines (and the Star Wars website). I understand this. I just don't like it.
Finally the stage was reset for Piebald. The entirety of the audience returned from its various hiding spots, meaning just over fifty fans were needlessly packed at the front of the hall. I slid conspicuously and sheepishly between the assembled audience and guitarist Aaron Stuart, and then looked down to study the set list. When a band opens with your favourite song it's always bittersweet. What is there to look forward to? What does this say about your own musical tastes? Are they pedestrian? Thankfully when the band fired up with "Fear and Loathing on Cape Cod," the energy was contagious. The band gushed with emotion and power from the first note, to which the audience responded with a matched enthusiasm and unison voices so loud as to drown out that of Travis Shettel. I was caught up in the moment, leaving me no time to worry about the complex implications of the set order.
While the band has historically been based in Boston, this show in Central Connecticut was essentially performed for a hometown crowd. These kids had seen the band play countless times, knew all the songs, and thus bobbed heads, pumped fists, and clapped at all the appropriate times. In return the twelve-year-old band played a set that was relaxed and jovial but still tight and professional. While "emo" is now a bastardized term, when the band began, its smoothed-out, post-hardcore sound was a shining example of the young subgenre. And although the band has added a few new complexities and variations since its early incarnation, Piebald remains mostly true to its early sound, and to the subgenre that has moved on without them.
I remained up front for a few songs, before politely sliding around to the other side of the stage near bassist Andrew Banner. After obstructing the view on that side of the stage, I retreated to the balcony to shoot from there. From that vantage, I was witness to the show's unity of motion – the band members pulsing and spinning, the audience following that same heartbeat, and echoing the band's movement.
The band closed with "The Stalker," featuring guest cowbell accompaniment from a randomly selected audience member, and augmented by well-timed handclaps delivered by the rest of the audience. It's small shows like this – ones built upon sincere bands, and an audience of true music fans – that remind me of all that is wonderful about our scene. This is the part of the show I understood, and this is the music that I don't mind growing old with.