OFF!, Cerebral Ballzy Warehouse Live October 14, 2011
Some bands drag on for years, featuring only one original member, desperate to remain potent and pitched forward. Making potboiler punk, they endure the glare of the social-media era and endless new generations of punk wannabes.
Keith Morris doesn't opt for that route. He's left the Circle Jerks behind him, bickering and bellowing, and forged OFF!, which makes trademarked manic music with stainless-steel nerves. OFF! do not wallow in the humor and politics of the Circle Jerks, but their barrage feels equally taut and titanic, brooding and relentless, like a fresh stab at all things lame.
Having been walloped by Greg Ginn's mammoth acid-punk-jazz distortion in 1986, during the closing rounds of Black Flag's last tour, Aftermath can honestly describe OFF! as exhilarating Black Flag fellow travelers. Notable bands have tried to mimic and mine that territory, like Bl'ast and Annihilation Time, but OFF! seals the deal. They shake off boredom, dig deep in the trenches of old-school hardcore, and deliver with persistence and perseverance.
OFF! reeks of a California vibe, partially because the state's culture and music serves as its umbilical chord. The members have sprouted from a genre that gestated 30 years ago in Hermosa and Redondo Beach, explored and documented in The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. As such, the band is a scruffy all-star affair culled from Hot Snakes, Red Kross and Burning Brides.
Inspired by seeing Iggy & the Stooges in the early 1970s and soaking up Los Angeles' first wave of punk, Keith Morris became the first singer for Black Flag. Though he exited the tribal group by 1979, fans still flock to their early singles and his wise-ass snarl.
Similar to that era, OFF! spirals onstage quickly into a sister vein of beach-punk ferocity, conducting their bombast with eerie powerhouse crunch and physical swagger, breaking only for extended monologues by Morris, who struts the stage like a well-meaning counselor and history teacher.
On record, the sounds emitted by OFF! are frothed with requisite vitriol and vehemence, aptly dubbed by the band as the "dark party" aura, replete with ominous overtones, exemplified by the night's starters, "Black Thoughts" and "Darkness." Unmasked and full frontal, the band, armed with street-wise barbs and sardonic wit, effortlessly delivered rough-hewn, recoiling tunes, like the 9/11-themed "Poison City."
Keith Morris may be in his fifties, but his heart and voice shoot in full-throttle mode. He abides by no fools, he sticks to his sonic guns, he offers no excuses, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he stakes new ground. He is not a human jukebox, he is a voice of reason and self-learning, of pent-up psychosis and derangement, all at the same time.
OFF! is the seized new dawn, replete with skuzzy surf-meets-stoner-rock shadings a la bands like Fu Manchu. Hence, OFF! doesn't always attack straight and hard in minimal strokes. They draw out the blood of songs live, unloading curlicuing feedback, gaping silence, and harrowing aural screeches. They offer dynamism and patience, waiting between every three to four songs for Keith to embark on another conversation.
For instance, he memorialized Jeffery Lee Pierce, his former roommate and singer for the Gun Club, for whom he penned a mid-paced, slightly cowpunk-esque tune. As Morris tells it, Lee's roots-punk legacy influenced everyone from the Hickoids to Turbonegro, whose shirt he donned. Go out and get Fire of Love, he insisted, edging younger fans towards a lesson in punk heroes.
During other asides, he chastised a fan for wanting an autograph, another for yelling at a young gal to get off the front of the stage, and still others for name-dropping Facebook, which he blamed for worsening driving conditions in California. Some fans soaked up the diatribes, others winked, and at least one person called him a punk rock version of a bitter old queen.
"Be cool, have fun, don't fuck with other people," seems to summarize his operator's manual.
In all, the band offered lurching, cutthroat, and downstroke 1979 punk, embodied in near-closer "Panic Attack." Disappointing to some, they unfurled no covers, nor did Morris sprinkle any Circle Jerks cuts in the mix. When fans yelled for such material, he told them to seek punk rock karaoke. Morris lacks that kind of nostalgia, or perhaps such songs would feel like rubbing salt in old wounds.
With duct-taped guitars and a bareboned drum kit, openers Cerebral Ballzy (above) delivered a Germs-on-meth hardcore salvo, stirring circle pits with their frenetic songs. As a melting pot outfit from Brooklyn, they toiled with topics like being too broke to afford the subway and partying - the main activity they wanted to continue unabated in Houston's dank night.
With skate-trash underpinnings and twin-guitar thrust and weave, they pressed the younger crowd into fervor but left some of the older crowd, well, unimpressed, rolling their eyes.
Together, like brothers of the broken-down van, the bands prove that punk is an idiom alive and well. Hell-bent on steering kids not towards fatalism but a future filled with their own passions, they ignited Houston's old Chinatown district with anarchic aplomb.
Personal Bias: I saw the Circle Jerks with hundreds of people at Engine Room ten years ago, and my first purchased punk shirt was a yellow Shawn Kerri-drawn Jerks skanker back in 1986, so Keith Morris can do no wrong, in my eyes.
The Crowd: Full and frenzied, but amazingly well-behaved. No one dropped to my feet pummeled and unconscious.
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Overheard In the Crowd: "Dave, how can you stay so excited about this stuff?" said one old school fan after the opening band made drunk-punk look novel and noble again.
Random Notebook Dump: An inebriated fan shouted at my wife that she looks 15 years younger than her age. Damn, I agree.