November 14, 2007
Better than: Standing around until midnight drinking $5 Lone Star out of a plastic cup in a glorified high-school gym with black walls, while "Running With the Devil" blares at maximum volume from a forbidding wall of speakers.
Download: "Shelter Two" or "Pushed Up Against the Wall," both available free from the Dischord Web site
In 2002, I went to see the legendary DC punk band Fugazi at the International Ballroom in Southwest Houston. The International Ballroom was once a grocery store, and it is enormous. The band stood six feet above the ground. The audience was packed into a column between two railings at the front of the stage. Fugazi is one of my favorite bands, but that show was disappointingly impersonal. I left wondering if the band had become too popular to sustain the spontaneity and immediacy that made them great.
Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus a few years ago, and frontman Ian Mackaye formed the Evens with Amy Farina, another veteran of Washington D.C. indie rock. Seeing them play is like a direct answer to my concerns about Fugazi. The Evens have just two instruments, baritone guitar and drums, and where bands like 25 Suaves and Lightning Bolt seem to challenge themselves to wring the largest possible amount of sound from two instruments, the Evens take the group's small size to a more logical place: their music is simple, personal and, for the most part, fairly quiet. Since many of Fugazi's fans are uninterested in such an act, they’re able to play smaller, more intimate shows, to people that really care about the music.
Photos by John Van
Aside from the size of the band, the biggest difference between the Evens and Fugazi is Farina, an unassuming but subtly talented drummer, who tempers the reggae-influenced punk pulse of Fugazi's Brendan Canty with the relaxed, almost lazy feel of the Dirty Three's Jim White. As a bonus, she is the first member of a Mackaye-fronted band with a naturally good singing voice.
Mackaye's playing and singing in the Evens are not drastically different from his earlier work, especially the more downbeat material on the last two Fugazi albums, but they make a surprising amount of sense, even at a quarter of full rock volume, when coupled with Farina's drumming. He does play sitting down, which is a little weird, but as he put it, otherwise he and Farina "wouldn't be even."
Mackaye wasted no time in informing the audience how things would be: "We're going to play for an hour," he said, "and after we play the last song, that's it." He went on: "You'll know it's the last song, because it's the one after which we don't play any more." The set was peppered with talk from Mackaye: explanations of the meanings behind songs, discourses on the purpose of the show, and instructions for singalongs. At one point, Mackaye even gave a useful and invigoratingly heterodox definition of punk: "Punk is a free space, where ideas come out."
Because of these interludes, Mackaye is sometimes criticized for lecturing the crowd or telling them what to do. But the purpose of these speeches is not to tell the audience what to do, but to tell them what they don't have to do: they don't have to go to a bar to experience music. They don't have to respect the division between artist and audience. They don't have to treat music as something frivolous. They don't have to be jaded. They don't even have to stand up. Because when the Evens play, none of these things matter. The band transforms the rock show from cynical entertainment into a participatory performance-art form, and unusual things can happen.
The entire crowd can sing along and nearly overwhelm the band. The band can ask for the crowd to help them whistle, and if that doesn't work out, then they can all cluck their tongues- and 200 people clucking their tongues is not something you see every day, I tell you what. The band and the audience can kid around. I can't remember the last time I laughed so much at a show, and honestly, when Mackaye joked "Forget the music, let's just talk," I half hoped he was serious. This was fun.
For people who see and listen to a lot of music, familiarity can drop a kind of veil over live music, making it seem hazy and distant. The frankness and friendliness with which the Evens conducted their show lifted that veil, and it was like hearing live rock for the first time. The Evens sing a lot of protest songs, and some of them are quite bracing - what's more cathartic than to scream to the establishment "YOU'RE FIRED!?" Their real achievement, however, is more personal: reminding the audience that punk, music, art and life are full of possibilities. As the band said in one of their closing songs, "Sara Lee," whoever you are, whatever anyone tells you to do, it's "not necessarily the only way."
Personal Bias: I feel guilty for not owning any Evens records.
Random Detail: In addition to its trademark stacks of dusty records and "Wall-o-Shoes," NoTsuOh now sports a giant plaster donut.
By the way: Anyone who enjoyed this show is an uptight sanctimonious straightedge PC hipster prick with no sense of humor. WHO HATES FUN. – Daniel Mee