Jeff Rosenstock Stages a Courtroom Drama at White Oak Music Hall

Jeff Rosenstock
Jeff Rosenstock Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

The pandemic has brought into focus our love-hate relationship with one another. Pettiness, selfishness and inconsideration rule the news cycle and news feeds. But, those flaws co-exist with examples of compassion and courage in the face of our recent uncertainties. The urge to make things better for others literally brought people into the streets clamoring for change last year. All those lockdown months away from our families and friends strengthened our closest bonds.

The question of whether we’re awesome or shitty was at the heart of Jeff Rosenstock's music dating back to his time in Bomb the Music Industry! and is an especially prevalent theme in his solo work. The DIY icon was writing and singing about humanity’s Jeckyll-Hyde ways way before we'd ever heard of coronavirus. But listening to that music performed live last night at White Oak Music Hall made it clear that Rosenstock understands and expresses the duality of the human condition in a way few others can.

Hearing Rosenstock sing about our collective polarity played out like a compelling, live courtroom drama. He’s a harsh prosecutor with a damning case on songs like “Scram!” (“I’ve been told for most my life ‘Try to see the other side’ by people who have never tried to see the other side,” goes one telling line) and “Festival Song,” with a crowd-pleasing burst of cynicism as it’s chorus. “They wouldn’t be your friend if you weren’t worth something,” it goes. We sang it with relish.

The scathing title track from last year’s NO DREAM had the audience chanting like an angry mob for a conviction. “It’s not a dream, it’s not a dream!” is a repeated line in the song, meant to be yelled from concert halls filled with like-minded folks so it rings loudly enough to wake others into action against the real-world nightmares of separating families at borders and kids shooting classmates and teachers.

click to enlarge The prosecution. - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
The prosecution.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

And the audience was like-minded, “nerd punks,” as my daughter dubbed them, with the asterisk that those punks are also her favorites. Even among friends, Rosenstock was on the lookout for interlopers into the mix. Only a few songs into the nearly two-dozen he’d perform, he warned that everybody appeared nice “but there’s often one or two real douchebags in the crowd who think that it’s okay to put their hands on somebody else” and “think that’s okay to grope somebody, which is not fucking okay at all.” Rosenstock’s deserved popularity means he gets to play bigger venues all the time and last night White Oak Music Hall’s downstairs room was full. It also means he sometimes has to ask people not to ruin a good time or commit an assault so that the space, no matter how large, is safe.

Like any good prosecutor, Rosenstock saved the best evidence for late in the argument, making his “political speech,” he joked, which was mostly an urging of the crowd to chant “Fuck Ted Cruz!” (The audience added Greg Abbott to the chant on its own). He said he was rooting for Texas and the good people here but that there are some really bad people here. He said “Texas” in his speech but you could have replaced it with “the world” and you’d have had the spoken word version of a Jeff Rosenstock song.

For his part, Rosenstock would seemingly prefer to give us the benefit of a reasonable doubt. All the energy he expends on stage - and it’s enough to power one of those failing grids Cruz fled for Cancun from - is his hope for us all to just do better by each other. He sings “I walk outside and people say, ‘Hey,’ and sometimes I just wanna say, ‘Hey, go away, go away,’ so I guess I better stay inside,” on “The Beauty of Breathing,” a standout from NO DREAM. The songs ends with the line, “I’m so jaded and that’s why I’m so fucking sad.”

The defense stepped forward and asserted its argument for us on many songs. "9/10” from 2018’s Post- had the crowd swaying and singing “Nine times out of ten I’ll be thinking of you,” a gentle reminder of how we need one another and that sentiment was woven through the set with songs that establish the argument that we’re worthy of defense. “Can you call my name through the modern snow, because I don't want to feel alone,” we all sang on “Ohio Tpke.” On “ILLEGAL FIREWORKS AND HIDING BOTTLES IN THE SAND,” the set opener, the line goes, “When it's time to go to bed I know I don't have to feel alone 'cause you'll be waiting for me in my dreams.” On “You, In Weird Cities,” we recall those wonderful moments with our loved ones that block out the ugliness of the world.

The defense.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
The show’s boundless energy was a salient argument, too. Having been boarded up for months, this was exactly the sort of event to emerge into the world with thanks to all those sing-a-longs, songs that inspired us to create a singular voice. As a community, we shouted our lungs out to “Festival Song” and mimicked Rosenstock’s full-body heave in the pit during a rousing version of “Nausea.” It felt fun and that’s a feeling that’s been sorely missing from lots of lives lately. We made it fun for each other.

Like any good defense counsel, Rosenstock saved the best evidence for closing arguments, the poignant song “We Begged 2 Explode,” which examines how we all have to grow up but don’t have to forget our youthful ideals. “As we’re bouncing up and down and trying to make the floor break, stop sneering at our joy like it’s a careless mistake,” we sang with him. There is joy in the world, it’s in other people, even if only a handful of them, and finding that joy can be a challenge. It’s insulting to believe that when we do it’s a careless mistake.

At the end of “We Begged 2 Explode,” the penultimate song of the set, we stood at the mending wall with Rosenstock, trying to make friendly with our fellow humans and ourselves. His songs reminded us how much we need to be together but also the value of social distancing. We need one another but there's safety in keeping ourselves and our hearts at least six feet apart.

The final song of the night was “No Time to Skank,” the lone ska song of the evening. Depending on your vote as a juror, it inspired either some victory skanking or a chance to dance away the blues. Either way, it should be noted, we all danced, enthusiastically and joyfully, together.

click to enlarge The verdict. - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
The verdict.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

The Openers: Two nice sets that built momentum for the headliner from Oceanator and Slaughter Beach, Dog. The former is a Brooklyn-based trio led by the engaging vocalist Elise Okusami. The crowd was into songs like “Baby Won’t You” and “Goodbye, Goodnight,” from the group. Slaughter Beach, Dog had a good following in the crowd, people who knew and sang with vocalist Jake Ewald songs like “Acolyte” and “Phoenix.” Ewald spoke for all the bands by calling the tour, which makes its way to Austin tonight, a “dream tour.” Get to the show early tonight for all the good stuff, ATX.

Personal Bias: I added a lot of Jeff Rosenstock lyrics in this article to make some points about his music and the show. The best of those songs from top to bottom, for me, is “The Beauty of Breathing.” As the kids say, when Jeff Rosenstock sang that song, I felt that shit.

The Crowd: Younger than I expected. Vigorous purchasers of Jeff Rosenstock merch. Unabashed when singing songs they know and love.

Random Notebook Dump: Seeing so few shows since, well, you know, I’m taking this space to thank anyone who made my own concert experience better. So, thanks to Jeff Rosenstock for chatting about the show with me and then delivering a great night with a great band; to the openers for their nice work; to Mike and all the professionals at White Oak Music Hall who do it so well it’s like they never had to stop doing it at all; to Austin Clark and Jake Rawls, who chatted with me last night - look for new music from them both soon with their respective bands; and to Mrs. Sendejas and especially Riz, who did a lot of work to help her dad out last night (but, also danced her ass off and sang to her favorite Jeff Rosenstock tunes).

Jeff Rosenstock Set List

Illegal Fireworks and Hiding Bottles in the Sand
Nikes (Alt)
Leave It in the Sun
The Beauty of Breathing
You, In Weird Cities
Festival Song
State Line
f a m e
Wave Goodnight to Me
Pash Rash
Monday at the Beach
Honeymoon Ashtray
Ohio Tpke
We Begged 2 Explode
No Time to Skank

Jeff Rosenstock
White Oak Music Hall
December 10, 2021
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.