The New York/New Jersey pop punk clique is at an awkward age. Late 20s/early 30s, with marriages, babies, careers, doctorates, and, in a few cases, one suspects, early onset senile dementia creeping in. So it was especially gratifying Thursday to see most of the old (loosely speaking) gang turn up with bells on for the first full-fledged show of the spring and, I think it’s safe to say, the show of the year so far.
Aaron Cometbus dragged, er, I mean invited me to – all right, I’ll come right out and admit it – a poetry reading earlier in the evening, which actually turned out not to be so bad at all, with the first poet, former Fug/Yippie/beat-hippie liaison Ed Sanders by himself being worth the journey. The last time I saw Ed Sanders up close was on the front porch of the Trans-Love house in Ann Arbor in December 1971, when he was getting ready to speak at the giant Free John Sinclair rally that also included John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Seale, and a host of others. Bizarrely, Ed seemed not to have changed one whit in the intervening 38+ years, still sporting the same hairstyle, albeit a little whiter, the same mustache, and the same Bodhisattva stare that seemed to say it was only with great forbearance that he remained rooted to this forlorn planet.
After the poetifying was done, Aaron led me with his usual inexorable logic in almost exactly the opposite direction of where I was going, till we wound up at a photo exhibit on W. 8th Street. The photos were great, but mostly small, which made it hard to get a good look at them, the gallery being jammed with NYU students who, one suspects, were as fascinated with themselves and the free wine as with the art on display, so I headed out for Greenpoint after unsuccessfully trying to persuade Aaron to come with me. “Dude, it’s DIY, punk rock, the real deal, etc.,” I assured him, but no amount of blandishments sufficed to lure him to the outer boroughs that night, so I went home, grabbed my bicycle, and tore up Manhattan Avenue in hopes that I hadn’t missed too much of the show.
A word about Tommy’s Tavern: it’s not the most popular venue in New York City. It’s not even the most popular venue in Greenpoint, and if push came to shove, might not even be the most popular venue on its own block, which, considering that there are no other established venues on its block, should tell you all you need to know about the esteem in which it’s held by local and touring musicians. It’s the kind of place you play when you can’t get a show anywhere else, or at least that seems to be the prevailing attitude.
That being said, I don’t mind the place at all. It’s a lot less pretentious – okay, it’s not pretentious at all, and there may be nobody on the premises who even knows how to spell the word pretentious – than just about anywhere else in Brooklyn, and while the front room is more or less generic dive bar, the back room, where the shows are, more closely resembles someone’s trashed basement or practice pad. It’s not a big space; it might hold 60 people in a pinch, maybe 100 if you were really pinched and ignoring all fire codes, not to mention sanity. There’s a marginal PA, a stinky fog machine which you might suspect was ironic, but only if you weren’t aware that irony is as absent from Tommy’s as the aforementioned pretentiousness. In other words, it’s just about perfect for the kinds of bands that I mostly like to see, i.e., the bands that almost nobody except a handful of my bizarre friends are interested in now, but will, ten or twenty years from now be the subjects of documentaries and scholarly books filled with the opinions of thousands of self-appointed experts who will swear up and down that they were regulars in the back room at Tommy’s and similar joints “back in the day.”
My earlier exertions in the cause of culture and companionship had caused me to miss the Sandworms, an understated but suprisingly good band featuring Michelle Shirelle of Steinways fame (yes, the same one who used to always have to have someone point out the notes for her on her bass; by some mysterious alchemy, she can now unreel strings of more or less flawless notes without even looking), and all but a bit of Cristy Road’s Homewreckers (also featuring Frank Leone of Unlovables fame and Jackie O of, well, Jackie O fame). There were a lot of shenanigans taking place on the sidewalk outside, always a popular hangout during Tommy’s shows, possibly because it smells better, or would were it not for the smokers, their ranks swollen by the recently relapsed Chadd Derkins and Grath Madden.
Southern Indiana’s Be My Doppelganger were up next, and got the night’s award for most-improved band, not that there was anything wrong with them to begin with. I’ve liked them every time I’ve seen them; the only fault I’ve found in the past that they were a little understated. Well, no longer; perhaps touring with the invariably overstated (I mean that only in the most complimentary of ways) Dopamines has cured them of that. It was full-on rock and roll chaos assault from the moment BMD took the stage, er, I mean, floor. The only fault I might find – you knew there was going to be one, didn’t you? – was that they went on a bit long, the last ten minutes or so being taken up with the sort of “Don’t even think of trying to get us to play another song, oh, all right then, we’ll play three” jamming that you’d more expect to see at the tail end of a Bruce Springsteen set (I’m still having nightmares from the 1978 experience where his four encores were almost longer than the show itself).
No worries about long sets from Ohio’s Dopamines, who are fast emerging as the Midwest’s premier band (as long as you don’t include Illinois or Minnesota, maybe, but even then, not by much). A slimmed-down Jon Weiner looked positively – almost unsettlingly – healthy as he led the Dopes (it’s all right to call them that as long as you’re their friend) through a blistering 25 or 30 minutes, which was still the longest I’ve ever seen them play. Adding to the frantic energy was guest guitarist Mikey Erg in his first Big Apple appearance since he upped sticks for Minneapolis sometime last year. I chastised the band afterward for their hippieish/Led Zeppelin-style jam or whatever it was on their next to last song, but apart from that, awesome.
That left House Boat, or, as singer/guitarist Grath Madden kept calling it, “the House Boats,” perhaps in reference to the fact that it wasn’t quite the House Boat, with regular member Zack being replaced by Steinways and Shy Guys drummer Chris Grivet on guitar. In fact, as Grath pointed out, the lineup was identical to one transient version of the Steinways, and the Steinways legacy hung heavily over the proceedings, all the more so because of Michelle Shirelle’s ebullient presence a couple feet from the “stage.” The performance started out a bit ragged – not an unusual feature of many if not all Grath (“Practice? We can do that at the show.”)-related projects, but quickly got awesome, and then got awesomer and awesomer. Not everybody was able to stay late – it was getting toward 2 in the morning by now, but the OA (Original Astoria) crew were still in full effect, and when the House Boats finally acceded to crowd pressure and briefly became – with the addition of Michelle Shirelle – the Steinways, the roof just about went off of the sucker.
People hung around a long time afterward, something you don’t usually see at a show these days, especially on a Thursday night, and I suspect that it was because they just didn’t want the good times and the reawakened memories to end. By the time Bill Moon wandered out into the middle of a deserted Manhattan Avenue in an attempt to hail a nonexistent cab, it was getting on for 3, and I had a wide open, albeit chilly road for my bike ride home. I thought about staying up almost till dawn to write my report of the night’s goings on, decided that would be a crazy idea, and stayed almost till dawn tonight instead. I’d be feeling very wistful about the fact that we don’t often have shows like that anymore if today hadn’t seen the official announcement of the fifth annual Insubordination Fest, which will be like last night’s Tommy’s show times infinity. Tickets go on sale April 7, and if you want to see most if not all the bands I’m talking about, and to decide for yourself if I’m a) crazy; or b) a prescient commentator on the most exciting underground music going these days (or c) both), better make your plans now to be there.
Oh, and here’s a big P.S. This outstanding show was put together by none other than the infamous Chickenman, a New York institution who is possibly even more maligned than Tommy’s Tavern, but who last night went a LONG way toward redeeming himself. I must admit that when I first saw him standing at the door with a fistful of dollars, I assumed that this was some sort of bizarro-world spare-changing technique on his part, but no, he set up the show, made it happen, and, well, what can I say? The answer is: not a single bad word about Chickenman, which in itself makes for a very special night. Congratulations to New York’s newest and possibly least obnoxious promoter!