all photos: Clarissa Villondo, all words: Marcus Dowling
35 years ago, it was HR and Bad Brains leading the charge – and if you closed your eyes just long enough on Thursday evening while on the second floor of DC bar The Britxton – hearing the charismatic palaver of Kenny Brown (of new-era harDCore band Loud Boyz), it felt like nothing had really changed in the Nation’s Capital’s music scene and music community, and the feel of the songs had even still largely remained the same. However, so much of DC HAS radically changed since the turn of the 1980s, making this past Thursday’s version of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC’s happy hour “Humanitini” series honoring DC’s harDCore and punk sounds, important.
Three hardcore band members – ranging from scene icons like Government Issue (and currently History Repeated) frontman John Stabb, BRNDA drummer Leah Gage and the aforementioned Loud Boyz vocalist Kenny Brown – as well as writer and documentarian (of just-released film “Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, 1980-1990, fame) and DC Public Library’s new “DC Punk Archive” lead Michele Casto spoke to the packed house filled with new-to-DC milennials and old school DC punk and hardcore show attendees who definitely “got it”that Brixton was hosting the event because they remember when the WUST Radio Hall became the second home for the famed punk/hardcore venue in 1996.
Though no members of Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi were present onstage, John Stabb certainly was, so the connective tie to the classic era felt quite strong. Clad in a green a black striped sport coat, Stabb is still very much the iconoclast, a major piece of “old DC” appreciably sticking out like a sore thumb in this most “new DC” of spaces. He was garrulous and quick with a story, discussing everything from touring Europe and seeing just how widespread the movement had become, to also relating stories about kids in punk communities with attention deficit disorder.
Between moments like that to Kenny Brown’s ability to cut through the chatter with a frank and disarming charm that’s clearly a mix of his New Jersey upbringing and now based in DC punk/hardcore roots, the event, though not in a basement of an abandoned building, college hall, or in the midst of the squalor of Gallery Place, even had the sort of off-kilter and almost not quite ready for prime time feel of so many punk and hardcore shows of DC’s past.
“The squalor of Gallery Place” you ask? Yes, director Scott Crawford spoke to the location of scene-important venue the 9:30 Club on 930 F Street NW, in the middle of “pimps and hookers” near Penn Quarter – a space that is now intriguingly occupied by a J. Crew location. Crawford also spoke about his “Salad Days” documentary, which grew from a desire to see “a scene that was – and still is – so important to [his] life” be properly remembered on-screen.” Crawford started out “writing zines and annoying people to buy them,” even getting fellow panelist Stabb to become a contributor.
Most intriguing to the entire discussion were the contributions of the two women on the panel, BRNDA drummer and house venue Bathtub Republic booker Leah Gage, as well as DC Public Library’a Michele Casto. Asked point blank about issues regarding gender in hardcore, she answered the decades-old question about being a woman in the scene by repeating the oft-repeated notion that she’d rather be a “good drummer” than a “girl drummer,” the desire to have her sex not make her talent unique feeling quite apparent. Relating a story of playing a recent show and having it “not feel too weird” that she was the only female player out of four bands that played still allowing traditional scene stereotypes to stay true nearly 40 years later. No, there was no mention of any rampant misogyny, feeling more that in DC punk/hardcore circles like it was more of an “oh well, that’s unfortunate, maybe we should at least attempt to change that” than anything else.
The ubiquitous 800-pound gorilla in the room of anything rock anywhere in the world these days appeared when discussing the “DC Punk Archive” being culled together by Michele Casto and the DC Public Library. Yes, Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age…no, wait…for the purposes of this event post-punk band Scream’s drummer Dave Grohl had classic scene footage digitally remastered for the DC edition of his “Sonic Highways” program on HBO, as well as receiving photography and zine archives from Crawford. The fact that the library hosting shows in the basement of the Martin Luther King, Jr. branch is noteworthy too, a key component in just how passionately legitimate the library’s entire curatorial process for the historical collection feels.
Though not present at this event, it’s important to note that though names like Ian Mackaye aren’t storming around onstage anymore, they’re still – like John Stabb and so many more – present and aware of the future of the punk scene. Leah Gage referred to the pressure sometimes felt by new bands to be “like Minor Threat” or “like Fugazi,” but its moreso in that the legendary artists are still around that makes that desire noteworthy – the ability to be cosigned by a legend in the flesh. From an attendee relating stories of seeing Dave Grohl feverishly drumming on a desk as a student at Bishop Ireton High School in Northern Virginia, to Stabb relating stories of still watching the bands of today, and Kenny Brown telling stories of 15-year old kids in hardcore bands who “learned about this from Youtube” – though punk and hardcore’s roots extend back 35 years, in this era the scene may possibly be as (or more) vibrant than ever before.