all words: Colin Wilhelm
all photos: Frank Turner
Ian MacKaye is our generation’s Woody Guthrie.
Well, that comparison may be unfair for a few reasons: MacKaye, who started two previous bands (Minor Threat and Fugazi, both emblematic for their respective subgenres of hardcore and post-hardcore) and one social movement (straight edge), is an influential enough musician and activist in his own right to transcend being pigeonholed as the generational equivalent of anyone; this comparison may also be influenced by the current presence of Mermaid Avenue Vol. I in my car’s CD player, and the decades since Guthrie’s death, his influence over the 60’s folk movement, and Bob Dylan have turned Guthrie into an even more outsized figure than (presumably) he was while alive; it’s a little hard to compare someone to a time-crafted legend.
Still, given the propensity of both towards progressive ideology, populism, and a vocal dissatisfaction with the status quo (not to mention musical talent), it seems highly appropriate and made ever more apparent by his transition from Fugazi’s dueling guitars to the neo-folksiness of The Evens, a natural progression from the muted fury of Fugazi’s last album, “The Argument”, whose eponymous track is a war protest song. Lyrics tinged with irony, social commentary and a rarely concealed disdain for authority, like the Evens’ “Dinner with the President” and Guthrie’s most famous song “This Land is Your Land”, whose more blatant late-verse protestations against land-ownership somehow didn’t make it into your kindergarten music class.
Catchy melodies to stick those lyrics in your head. An influence on much of a generation of songwriters and musicians (though I think it’s safe to say Guthrie ‘wins’ that side of the argument, unless you weigh Nike lifting a Minor Threat cover album for an ad campaign and a porn director sort of taking MacKaye’s name in a bizarre, asinine tribute more heavily than I do). The comparison seems painfully obvious (at least to me) once you start considering it.
Which is perhaps why Thursday’s 2011 season-closing show felt more like a folk concert than the hardcore, post-hardcore, and post-post hardcore [let’s think of some new labels people] MacKaye’s been associated with. Not to say that he didn’t bring the same sort of raw emotional intensity; several times during the show MacKaye did his/punks trademark full head, neck and spinal column headbang despite being seated and continuing to strum chords on his electric guitar.
On and offstage partner Amy Farina provided moody drums and vocals to evenly match MacKaye. The couple played beautifully off of each other on the poetic “Cut from the Cloth”, their strongest song of the set and of their catalogue. Flanked onstage by a couple of floor lamps that brought a warmer glow and greater light to the stage than what the overhead streetlamp usually provides. One could have mistaken the atmosphere for a post-dinner living room concert if not for the audience that probably topped a thousand and grass beneath your feet.
Despite the laidback atmosphere the show never felt lethargic; rather you could see on stage the same intensity that made Fugazi one of the top live acts in the country, often barely contained despite the homey decor. Still this was the mellower Ian MacKaye on display, as he engaged the crowd more often and more playfully than I can recall at any Fugazi show. At times it felt like “VH1 Storytellers: The Evens”.
MacKaye explained some of the songs before playing them, like why his as-tongue-in-cheek-as-he-can-get “Dinner with the President” [“Available, but they’re not calling me/I live in town, it’s not geography”] is about Obama as much as Bush, or encouraging crowd participation on the most biting lyrics of “Mt. Pleasant Isn’t”, which he delivered in his trademark guttural vein-popping yell-singing voice [“The police will not be excused, the police will not behave”—message being “please stop shooting people”].
Overall though he seemed willing to be as vulnerable as he was incensed, a shift in emotional tone from much of his past work. The same observational skill, emotional complexity, and adept songwriting (all echoed by Farina) that have turned MacKaye into an such a widely-regarded indie music figure, and now get him compared to folk legends by amateur music critics, are present that though he has ostensibly calmed, somewhat, with age.
Understandably The Evens were not an easy band to open for, though Laughing Man played an interesting sort of garage-folk set in their own right. The Washingtonian once described Laughing Man’s sound as, “if Tom Waits asked a group of jazz musicians to transmit rock-and-roll from the moon.” That’s as apt of a description as it is fun.
Singer-guitarist Brandon Moses’ voice seemed projected from a great distance away and several decades ago, like a mix between Robin Pecknold on a bad ‘shroom trip and a psychotic Roy Orbison. Laughing Man’s name comes in part from references as disparate as anime and a J.D. Salinger short-story, but mostly it comes from the nervous laughing affectation Moses uses to deliver many of his lyrics. That’s just where the interesting begins with this band: they incorporate sparing horns and string instruments, jazz conceits and time signatures, garage‘50s nickel jukebox rock, a folkish softness and humanity, and a hearty amount of weirdness into their aural stew, displayed most appositely by the song “Abington”.
I can’t wait for them to hit it big six months after they move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
This show and article about it bring a close to this summer’s D.C. tradition of indie music, ice cream, and hipster picnics. It’s been a solid season of pre-tween punks, power pop, overachieving high-schoolers and disaffected mumblecore bands, all displaying that D.C. has a little more diversity in its hipster quirk than people typically give the city credit for.
Some stray observations from the course of this year’s concert series:
- Title Tracks had the best all-around set this summer in my opinion. Pure sugary pop awesomeness. Unfortunately wasn’t able to give them the write-up they deserved.
- I was unable to attend the 6/27, 6/30, 7/28 or 8/1 shows, so if you disagree let me know in the comments.
- Food trucks are a welcome addition to the always-present Good Humor van.
- Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina’s son will have some serious indie street cred when he grows up, aside from the obvious of being their son. He hung out with Henry Rollins “backstage” at the show on Thursday and has been a common sight at shows, along with his dad.
- The City Paper oral history of Fort Reno was a pretty awesome, jealousy-inducing article. Watch your back Ryan Little.
- The crowds this year were larger—and of a greater age range—than I ever remember them being. Perhaps a sign—along with a better overall quality in bands than I remember—that the D.C. scene is resurgent and maturing.
- This picture kind of sums up the spirit of Fort Reno: