Thursday August 29th, 2002 at El Torreon in Kansas City, MO
UK Subs, Beerzone, & Sister Mary Rotten Crotch

UK Subs UK Subs Beerzone Sister Mary more...

I was the only one at the show in a Belle and Sebastian shirt. I mean there wasn’t an official count, but I’m pretty sure that was the case and I sure didn’t see any other ones. Also on the "not surprising" front, on this night, the El Torreon was inhabited by aged punks and hooligans who were old enough to be distressed by Ronald Reagan’s election. On the "shouldn’t have been surprising" front, at eight pm the hall was still nearly empty. At this point we join the show account already in progress:

…vocalist Liz Nord then shouted "Welcome to the sell-out capacity El Torreon Ballroom." Every band is frustrated by small turn outs, but the best ones switch their mindsets, play an intimate show for those fans who did show up (or show up early in this case), and move on. Sister Mary Rotten Crotch is not a band to internalize their frustrations. In fact, they’ve built a reputation and a song catalog about voicing those annoyances and brutalizing those that cause them.

As though nothing were wrong (or right) the band began their set as spelled out on their setlist and didn’t deviate a note. With a balance of old and new songs (though much of the band’s earliest material is now retired), the band did their duty and filled their time slot intending to clock out and go home when they were done. Despite Nord’s trips into the audience, vein-extending and back-bending stage antics, and her trademark "pick a guy out who is standing next to the stage and then sing intently in his face until he looks away or wets himself" behavior, the crowd remained lifeless. However, midway through the set, new guitarist ‘Woodsy’ offered a few words of encouragement to the audience and somehow it stuck. Soon ten or so sweaty guys were moshing about the pit and another handful were chipping in backing vocals. Word on the street is that a little crowd interaction might not be enough for Woodsy to earn his keep…

Other contributions from the new line-up seem to be popping up as well. Several of the band’s new songs were slower with more focus on melody than those previously offered. One song in particular (sorry I didn’t catch the title) reminded me of later Social Distortion. Surely Sister Mary isn’t mellowing already? Who will provide us with vulgarity and raw estrogen should the band progress their songwriting beyond gimmickry? Either way they’re still a must experience band — especially now when we may just get the best of both worlds.

Following Sister Mary were England’s Beerzone. Beerzone promptly took Sister Mary’s oi-leanings and turned the knob past eleven. I’m just not aware of a current band that does it any better than Beerzone. They combine the raw energy of punk, with the anthemic power of oi, and wrap it all in a pounding, yet accessible, pop format. While many bands in the genre attempt to construct a brutality to their music, Beerzone have instead focused on an accessibility that, in another time, would have placed them in the charts alongside of Sham 69. If only the fans of Blink 182 could hear Beerzone, the music industry might just be saved.

Generally when I go to see a monumental band like the UK Subs I do so with a sense of conflict. This would be nothing like the UK Subs I could have seen in 1977 (would I have taken time away from kindergarten to do so), but all the same this was the UK Subs …or at least Charlie Harper and his new recruits. So before the first note was every played, I was resigned; my attendance was to be a mission of scholarly anthropological research. Surely the winkles on Harper’s face must reveal a forgotten tale of anarchy and revolution if I can just figure out how to decode them. However by the end of the night the deep lines on this 46-year-old man’s face merely said to me that heroin isn’t a good idea.

Despite the ‘geezer’ status of Charlie Harper, it must be said that both he and his band seemed to be as connected to the streets as ever. These aren’t rich gentlemen trotting out their punk rock for a new generation of dollars, but punks more honest and committed than most of the kids (myself especially) in attendance. Anyone can get into punk when you’re 17 or 23, but when you’re 46 and ‘No Future’ isn’t an advertising slogan but rather a way of life, well that’s something too scary for most of us to contemplate. The painful truth is that if Charlie Harper weren’t touring forty weeks a year, he might just be living in a car. That reality may not keep the band relevant (after all, styles change), but it has kept them honest. Today the UK Subs services the same audiences, with (largely) the same songs, with nearly the same energies, and with seemingly the same fire as they did in ’77. I wonder what 25 years perspective tells Harper about a thirty-year-old kid in a Belle and Sebastian t-shirt, poised with an expensive digital camera, and grinning wildly?