For the first time ever I seriously considered not going to this year’s Insubordination Fest in Baltimore, but having my nephew Jackson here for the month quickly put a stop to any such notion.
Jackson went to his first Fest last summer, and for some reason couldn’t stop talking about wanting to go back again. Maybe something about the opportunity to spend three days running around in a nonstop barrage of noise, music, laughter and chaos has a certain appeal to young teenagers? Not that I’d know, never having had kids of my own, and it having been so long ago that I myself was a young teenager that I have absolutely zero recollection of what it was like.
I did have reasons for not wanting to go, the first being that the previous four Fests were all so incredibly awesome that I didn’t want to risk attending one that might not live up to its predecessors (my reasoning, sound or not, being that the Fest couldn’t keep getting better indefinitely). Secondly, after all of the “drop-dead” headliners being considered for this year’s Fest fell through (I won’t name any names, since there’s always a possibility that one or more of them will be able to play in a future year), I got discouraged, thinking that after the sterling lineups we’ve had in the past – each year’s even more astounding than the year before – Fest 2010 was in real danger of being a letdown. Lastly, quite a few people I knew and liked weren’t attending, some because of financial reasons or because it was simply too far to travel; others because, well, they just couldn’t be bothered, or there weren’t enough bands they liked, or they were getting too “grown up” for such nonsense. One prematurely middle-aged young lady actually chose this weekend to make a pilgrimage to Graceland, the sort of thing that I would have thought appealed mainly to people even older than me.
One problem is that the Fest has been such a runaway success that a host of copycat fests have sprung up around the country, allowing both bands and fans to pick and choose among them. When the Fest started in 2006, it provided an opportunity to see a selection of bands that were seldom if ever gathered together at the same place and time, but increasingly during the last couple years, I’ve heard people saying things like, “Why bother going all the way to Baltimore when I can see the same bands in _____ (insert home town here)?”
What they’re not getting is that while bands are the most salient feature of the Fest, they’re far from the most important one. You can see bands on almost any given night in any given town in America; the Insubordination Fest is more like a family reunion (I know, I know, the Juggalos say that about their shindig, too, but trust me, it’s not quite the same thing).
Although the first official Fest was in 2006, many trace its real origins to a Gamma Rays show in 2005. Never heard of the Gamma Rays? You and 300 million other Americans; they were a good, even excellent band, but probably numbered their fans in the hundreds rather than thousands. If that. But when they announced they were breaking up and would be playing their last show in Baltimore, a bunch of friends, many of them from New York and New Jersey and linked up by the Pop Punk Message Board (PPMB), decided to make a pilgrimage to see the lads off in style.
I was living in London at the time and missed this event, but people who were there still rave about the camaraderie and the sense that this was something more than just another pop punk show (the genre of pop punk itself was not widely recognized or highly regarded at the time, so its devotées had an understandable tendency to cluster together with an ever-so-slight us-against-the-misunderstanding-world chip on their shoulder).
The following year marked the 10th anniversary of Insubordination Records, one of the few labels specializing in pop-punk. At least partially inspired by the residual warm glow of the last Gamma Rays show, its owners decided to put on a mini-fest of bands from the label along with a few others that specialized in the same style of music. There was very little money involved, and the Fest, such as it was, took place entirely in two bars, one tiny, the other even tinier, on the barely-traveled streets (especially after dark) of downtown Baltimore.
One of the advantages of having your Fest in what could pass for a set on The Wire (Fest-goers in subsequent years often sighted film crews shooting scenes for that show) is that a) it’s cheap; and b) nobody cares too much about what you do or how you carry on. The same crowd that if gathered on a sidewalk in New York City might have elicited a visit from the riot squad barely attracted a glance from the local authorities in Baltimore.
Anyway, long story short: the 200 or so attendees at the first Fest (half were in bands; the other half bought tickets that sold out almost instantly and never went on sale to the general public, by way of the PPMB) experienced a dual-pronged epiphany consisting of a) “Wow, these obscure bands that only a handful of us know about are not only really good, they’re better than almost anything else that’s going on today!” and b) “Wow, it’s not just the bands; we really like each other, too!”
And so it grew. And grew. From the Sidebar (capacity 200, shoehorn not included) to the Ottobar (600, more or less) to Sonar (1400+). People drove, bused and flew in from all over the United States and Canada and half a dozen other countries as well. Many of us even came to, well, maybe not quite love, but at least appreciate Baltimore itself, whereas during the first Fest, some of the New Yorkers who were too young to remember that city’s bad old days were visibly angered and frightened by the raw and anarchic edge of crime-ridden Charm City (yes, that really is Baltimore’s nickname, and the locals really do call you “Honey” or “Hon” at every opportunity).
But as I was saying, I was almost ready for a break this year until Jackson laid down the law and informed me that we were going, and once that was settled, I was as excited as ever. I’ll have to be honest and admit that with each passing Fest I watch fewer bands and spend more time chilling on the grass across the street or wandering back and forth from the hotel while stopping to share stories and attitudes with new and old friends from all over, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I could kick myself over some of the bands I’ve missed these past three years, but at the same time I’ve witnessed enough transcendent performances to last me well into my next lifetime.
That being said, why not get the band stuff out of the way right now: this year I saw approximately 10 bands play (out of 70!), but my luck (or prescience) was stunning, because nearly all of them ranged from excellent to incredible. As per general consensus, the Fest was “won” by Ohio’s Dopamines (for what many feel was the second straight year), but it would be hard to argue that the Copyrights and Dear Landlord weren’t right there on the same page.
Thanks to the World Cup, I missed Be My Doppelganger, but have it on good authority that they too were among the weekend’s stars; I didn’t, however, miss Vancouver’s Hextalls, and how this band has managed to avoid being wildly popular, I just don’t understand (perhaps the fact that they tend to play about once a year?). They were sensational, and a band that can make that much of an impression on me even when I’m almost totally unfamiliar with their music generally has to have something really special going on.
The Max Levine Ensemble seem to be growing up a little, and I use that term advisedly, since their whole audience and ambiance has always been so much about “the kids.” Some of their new songs seem to be mining darker, more mordant territory; the one that sticks with me most is “We Are Romans,” a melancholy meditation on being citizens of a declining empire.
No one is likely to accuse Canada’s Hamiltons (or, as they are often known, “Canada’s Ramones”) of being overly serious. Unless you’re talking about seriously awesome, that is. A couple Fest-goers wondered naively about a certain mysterious resemblance between the Hamiltons and New Jersey’s now-defunct Ergs, but as someone astutely pointed out, the Hamiltons have been around for decades longer than the Ergs, and are still much better looking.
Then there were The Steinways. What’s that, you say? Broken up? Played their last show quite a while ago? Barely speaking to one another? Well, some or all of this may be true, but nonetheless, a promised appearance by Barrakuda McMurder suddenly and without warning gave way to a resurrection of Astoria’s favorite zombie band, and while they might have been a tad bit rusty on the technical end of things (not really; they practiced at least once before the show, I hear), they sent the crowd into paroxysms of ecstasy by their mere appearance on the stage.
The music was pretty good, too. Actually, it was incredible, and I think for many people was enough by itself to make the trip to Baltimore worthwhile. Not quite so enjoyable were Michelle Shirelle’s slightly sozzled antics. Her off-kilter Gracie Allen-style remarks and musings have always been a highlight of Steinways shows, but this time they kind of degenerated into a series of random verbal and physical assaults on singer/guitarist Grath Madden, who for once was himself behaving almost impeccably.
Granted, almost everybody who knows him has probably felt the impulse to harass or publicly humiliate Grath at one time or another, but you know, too much of a good thing can be worse than none at all! Still, only a minor fly in the otherwise sublime ointment of a sterling Steinways reunion show.
Oh, actually, there was one other minor irritant, too, in the form of stage divers, frequently of the obese sort, landing repeatedly on people’s heads and emphasizing that fact with an unfortunately-placed boot or two. I long ago stopped trying to catch stage divers unless they were the considerate type – i.e., not too fat and willing to flow with the crowd rather than attack it. Otherwise, they can land flat on their faces for all I care.
After being kicked in the head a few times, I began – much to their frustration – actively guiding stage divers downward, if necessary doing a pretzel twist on their legs that stopped them going anywhere else. Then, after receiving a particularly hefty thump on the back of the head, I recognized the offender as someone who’d been making people miserable all weekend with his manic and violent pit antics.
“That does it,” I said, grabbing him by the nearest available appendage, which turned out to be his longish hippie hair, and slamming him into the ground. It was not a pre-meditated gesture; if I’d stopped to think about it even for a second, I wouldn’t have done it, because the poor kid could have been seriously injured. Not to mention that he was half my age and a lot bigger than me, meaning that I could have been seriously injured. As it was, though, he picked himself up and ran out of the room with a terrified look on his face. I suddenly felt sorry for him, even after being congratulated by several others for dishing out this rough justice. I don’t think I’m cut out for the enforcer role.
The aforementioned World Cup (featuring the ignominious exits of both teams I was supporting) and bad timekeeping on my part caused me to miss any number of other great bands; two that I especially regret not seeing were The Pillowfights and the sensational Night Birds. And I regret even more not seeing or at least not seeing as much as I’d have liked of many of my friends. But that wasn’t, as it turned out, entirely my fault; while the music and the people were as excellent as ever, this year’s Fest took a turn toward the nasty on Saturday, and despite its overall success, has left a bad taste in the mouth of many attendees.
The problem originated with Sonar’s owner, a fellow by the name of Dan McIntosh, who for reasons known only to himself (and possibly his analyst), decided to undermine and undercut the Fest to the point where not only did he intrude greatly on people’s enjoyment, but also managed to give his business a permanent black eye while simultaneously wiping out most of the profits he should have made.
In a poorly thought out moneymaking scheme, he nixed without warning a traditional promotion co-sponsored by Pabst and the Fest that provided discounted beer (which has always resulted in near record-breaking sales) and bumped the beer price up by $2. The pop punkers reacted exactly the way any Economics 101 student could have predicted: they did their drinking elsewhere, and beer sales tanked. The following day, Fest-ers were greeting with a hand-lettered sign announcing “No re-entry,” i.e., if you left the building for a break, a meal, a stroll around the block, that was it. You couldn’t come back in again.
Bear in mind that we’re talking about a 12+ hour show, and one which people have always been free to come and go from. In fact, one of the fondest memories most people have of the Fest is sitting on the grass across the street with their friends as the sun goes down on a steamy Baltimore night. Because, face it, no matter how much you love music, 12 nonstop hours of it is a bit much for anyone. And because people always had the option of stepping outside to give their ears or brains a rest, the Fest is structured so that there are bands playing constantly on three different stages indoors, with no place to sit down, no place where it’s possible to have a non-shouted conversation.
I personally was fortunate enough to have a wristband that allowed me to come and go as I pleased, and since I don’t drink, the higher beer prices had no impact on me. But the sudden change of policy put a huge damper on the Fest nonetheless, not least because most of my friends were trapped inside, where socializing – at least beyond the “How’s it going?” level – was almost impossible. There was not even a fresh air option, because the only outdoor areas people had access to were a little corral in front of the club, and the alley alongside it. Both were designated smoking areas, and the alley, lined on both sides by three-story walls, was also superheated (above and beyond the ambient temperature of 90+ degrees) by the club’s air conditioning exhaust vents.
One astute observer (oh wait, that was me!) likened the whole business to Woodstock being conducted in Stalag 13 (that’s the Hogan’s Heroes POW camp, for you young readers), but on further reflection, but I think it could equally well be dubbed the Gaza Fest, based on the way the owner penned everyone into an area that was completely ill-equipped to deal with a captive audience of that size and then acted surprised when the inmates grew sullen and restive.
Okay, I know it’s kind of poor taste to compare someone’s Fest experience being ruined to the ongoing privations and sufferings endured by the inhabitants of the real Gaza – for one thing, Fest-goers always had the option to leave, they just couldn’t come back again without buying another $30 ticket, and I’m pretty sure that nobody got shot or blown up – but in a world that sees nothing wrong with sitcoms about Nazi POW camps, I think I should be allowed a little hyperbole.
Frankly, what angers me most is not the Sonar owner’s ineptitude and dishonesty, but the fact that it was so pointless, that it accomplished nothing other than a perfect lose-lose situation. Apart from the music, which was excellent as always, Saturday’s Fest was effectively ruined for the attendees, but it was also a disaster for the club. For most of the day, the bars, usually a hotbed of activity, were deserted. For bar staff, who rely on tips for most of their income, it must have been a disaster, and the club itself must have taken a multi-thousand dollar hit in lost alcohol sales.
What’s more, the Sonar owner clearly didn’t recognize that he wasn’t dealing with a typically obtuse rock and roll audience: among the Fest-goers were lawyers, teachers, nurses, engineers, i.e., people who are not used to being treated in this fashion, and who are literate and intelligent enough to do something about it. Negative reviews quickly lopped a couple stars off Sonar’s rating on Google, and a letter-writing campaign to public officials about Sonar’s apparently illegal refusal to provide free drinking water to patrons (in an attempt, as the owner put it, to “upsell” $3 and $4 bottled waters, leading in turn, to a hilarious Hogan’s Heroes-style – “Operation Poland Spring” – operation, which involved hundreds of free bottles of water being smuggled into the club via guitar cases and the like) could well lead to further trouble for the hapless club owner. A civil suit for breach of contract is not out of the question.
Oh well. It was the first time something seriously went wrong with the Fest (the power blackout in 2007 was a serious annoyance, but was confronted with the sort of Blitz spirit (in that case the club owners and Fest organizers cooperated to overcome the difficulties) that made it more of an adventure than a setback, and hopefully the lesson has been learned never to deal with Dan McIntosh and/or Sonar again. The Fest will be back next year in a different venue, and, I suspect, better than ever.