I hurried into the club a bit after 8:00 to find DJ Johnny 2Tone selecting the punk rock megahits from bands as disparate as Stiff Little Fingers, Suicidal Tendencies, and GG Allin. While seeing Johnny at a punk show isn't shocking, I was surprised to see his turntables, mixer, and crates of rares (that the Damned "Neat Neat Neat" single on Stiff Records ain't cheap) abutting the pit. Could he hold this precarious ground, or would the night would end in disaster? Stay tuned.
Sidewalk Celebrity kicked off the show at 8:30. I knew nothing about this KC punk trio before the show. After an ample forty-minute set, I still know precious little. I know closer "Booze, Drugs, & Money" sounded like a calling card that the trio will be playing at every show until it breaks up. I know all each musician writes songs, and that each has different sensibility. Luckily, the third-wave SKA leanings of drummer Ryan Savage's "Skate All Night," played well with the fresh-from-the-'80s, Circle-Jerk-loving tracks sung by sneering guitarist David Barnes, and both worked with the snotty vocals of the bassist. I know Savage's jokes were corny. I know the band was relaxed (to the point of working out forgotten songs live on stage). And I know I want to see the band again as soon as possible.
Although the opener did hold the audience's attention and inspire a few dancers, there was never a true pit, and so Johnny's equipment survived the opener unscathed. Soon Gang of Four was spinning while the opener cleared and stage, and the next band put on its costumes.
A little after 9:30 the mysterious Drop A Grand took the stage. I once knew the elaborately concocted back story for the band's bizarre image, the reasons for its costumes and masks, and even the origins of the bizarre pseudonyms used by its performers, but I've since forgotten it all. Besides, all of that schtick is superfluous to (if not downright distracting from) the single truth: every time I see this mischievous band of rockers, I enjoy it more. On this night, regulars Gern Blanzden (vocals/guitar), Unikron (bass/vocals), and 2 Dolla Bill (drums) were without the guitar theatrics of White n Shitty II, but were instead bolstered by the return of a mysteriously unmasked saxophonist White and Shitty I, and the maracas of hotpants dancer Ricardo Mejia. The result was the fastest, tightest, and freakiest set yet. The quintet ran through standards like "Extraterrestrial Brother" and "Sucking Corporate Cock" before tossing in a rollicking cover of "Rockin' in the Free World" and an otherworldly version of The Who's "Boris the Spider" that was unsettled by the pitch shifted vocals that sent Blanzden's vocals higher and Unikron's lower. The remainder of the 35-minute set will only live on in the legends retold by the audience members who weren't sure about what they were seeing, but weren't about to miss out on what the band might do next.
While the audience was distracted by Drop A Grand's antics on stage, no one noticed Johnny had packed up his equipment, stowing it safely in road cases, prepared for the fury to come. He'd live to spin another day, but without his selections, the twenty-minute turn around between acts ticked by mercilessly slow. The wait came to an end when a heavyset middle-aged man in a blazer pushed by me and grabbed the microphone. This was what we had come for. I hoped.
As with any band that has been performing for nearly 40 years, the tale of T.S.O.L. (technically True Sounds of Liberty, though only technically) is long and sordid. Big stylistic shifts brought the band from hardcore punk to gothic death rock to glam metal and back, gaining and losing members as time went on. But this was the real deal; on stage stood vocalist Jack Grisham, guitarist Ron Emory, and bassist Mike Roche — all from the band's formative and influential years. Original drummer Todd Barnes died in 1999 as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, leaving an opening for Antonio Hernandez behind the kit. Hernandez was easily twenty years the junior of his bandmates, and initially came into contact with the band as Roche's mail carrier. That story was just one of the many delivered by Grisham throughout the night. Grisham would later elaborate that the band didn't come to play a show, but rather to visit, and telling stories (many about aging) was a part of that. I suspected it was also a way for the aging icon to recover from the furious pacing that accompanied his vocal performance.
The band's set began with its first EP. Five hardcore punk daggers delivered in under eight minutes, without pause or introduction. I knew them all. I'd scrawled every word of "Property Is Theft" and "Abolish Government / Silent Majority" on my high school notebooks, and spray painted their agitprop on every unguarded wall in my town. Next the set shifted to the band's 1981 album Dance with Me — a transitional album that contained some of the fury from the EP (notably "Peace Thru Power"), but, more notably, also included a darker, slower, and gothic element that would be dubbed "death rock." After playing the necrophilia-themed "Code Blue" (the album's most known track) an audience member asked if the song was factual. Grisham laughed, explaining he was an eighteen-year-old kid, writing about whatever he thought sounded cool. The set continued as the band worked through the groundbreaking eleven-song, 30-minute album. While I had always preferred the blast of the band's first EP, I now found myself mesmerized by the inventive post-punk guitar work of Emory. Was it always there and I had just missed it during my "play it faster" teenage years?
After playing the whole of Dance with Me, the band immediately offered a three-song encore drawn exclusively from its post-millennial catalog. Punks that had moments ago stood at the edge of the stage, gesticulating wildly and shouting lyrics back at Grisham, were suddenly quiet. Behind them, the flailing dancers that started their pit on TSOL's first call to arms continued their ballet, undaunted by the seismic shift happening on stage. A few bodies hit the ground, a few fell onto the stage, and the innocents at the perimeter occasionally stumbled outward, their circle passing through the area where turntables sat an hour earlier. But there was no blood, no disaster, and at the very reasonable time of 11:30 the show was over sending all us old punks back to the reality of 2018.