I spent my past Thursday and Friday nights diving into DC’s culture. No, I didn’t go to museums, visit the monuments, or read about DC’s history; I went to two free punk shows showcasing DC area artists.
When you think of a place with a punk culture, you may automatically think of cities like New York or LA, but DC has a rich punk history of its own. Hardcore, a subset of punk music, rose in popularity in DC during the 80s with bands such as Minor Threat and the Bad Brains at the helm. While punk music may not be gaining as much attention today as it did in the past, it is far from dead in the nation’s capitol.
I saw a total of eight bands on Thursday and Friday, and while some were more definitively punk than others, the DIY (do it yourself, in regards to producing your own music) vibe made famous during the 80s was constant throughout, as well as the all-ages aspect of the shows. All-ages is something that came about because of DC’s Teen Idles, who pushed to play shows for a younger crowd during the 1980s. It is now a legacy that is preserved at nearly all DC venues and shows, compared to most other cities where “all ages” really just means 16 and up.
The first show I went to was one of the basement shows at the MLK Library organized by the DC Punk Archive. The show had an early start and end, and each band played a quick set to the small crowd of around 100 people.
The first band to go on was Bethesda punks The Black Sparks. Even their description is a misnomer – are there really punks in Bethesda? The contradictions didn’t end there; the Black Sparks played hardcore inspired punk rock, but the singer’s babyface and the relatively clean cut appearance of the band made it hard to take their angry lyrics seriously. However, what they lacked in believability they made up for with their considerable musical ability. They could really play, and I loved it when the drummer came out from behind his kit to end the set with some trumpet. In a few years, I think The Black Sparks are going to be something great to see live.
The next band on the lineup, Time is Fire, was a psychedelic-rock band with a mild punk flavor. The singer was like what I would imagine David Byrne would be if he put on a fez and opted to go without shoes. Once again, the music was good and the lyrics were pretty intricate, but the singer was a little too much of a character. At first I enjoyed watching him dance and flail his arms, but towards the end it was just tiring. While the band was tight and had a unique sound, the antics of the frontman prove Time is Fire may not be for everyone.
The band I had been most interested to see was the final one, The Cornel West Theory, and they certainly delivered. A punk band with a strong message about race and Washington DC, they had the best set of the night. Their songs were an interesting mix of spoken word and typical loud vocals. The members were in their late forties and fifties, an older age group than those of the other bands. They had the upper hand in the sense that they had something to say. One of the singers took time in between the songs to discuss the way we are constantly categorized by race in America, and how we should not allow lines to be drawn between black and white when so many people are in between.
On Friday, I went to a venue that many would be surprised hosted five loud punk bands: the St. Stephens and Incarnation Episcopal Church in Mount Pleasant. The show was a benefit organized for the church by Positive Force DC, an activist organization started in the 80s by members of DC’s punk community. Still alive and kickin’, Positive Force organizes music and art shows, film screenings, and the like.
The first band, Apparatchik, was basically a metal jam band, with no singing but nice riffs. The crowd, mostly younger people, nodded their heads along in appreciation as the band clad in black pounded out their heavy sound. I eventually started to like them, and even bobbed my head along, but it was a little too boring after a while.
The next band was self-proclaimed punk folk band Foster Carrots. A little out of place after the hard sound of Apparatchik, Foster Carrots were much more hipster than any band I had seen so far. It took them a little while to hit their stride and people blatantly talked over them until their friend grabbed the mic and forcefully told everyone to be quiet. But I liked their vibe, and their lyrics were really emotional and perfectly complimented by the singer’s voice.
The show returned to a more punk route with Bustoff. Bustoff, like The Black Sparks, took a cue from earlier DC hardcore bands. But unlike The Black Sparks, Bustoff was believable. Starting a mosh pit that was relatively deadly and full of kids tackling one another, Bustoff had the anger and conviction to actually to be a decent punk band. Standout song was “Burn Down Bethesda,” part of which reminded me of Minor Threat’s “Out of Step” due to its spoken section about the band’s view of Bethesda.
Nox, a young girl punk band, followed Bustoff. The band had confidence, and Wilson sophomore Anna Wilson delivered brilliant guitar riffs with utter coolness. I enjoyed their chemistry as a band and their soft lyrics delivered by a backing punk sound. They seemed experienced even though they were young, which was impressive. However, they weren’t as exciting to watch as Bustoff due to their relatively static playing.
The final band was Go Cozy, a fuzzy alt-rock band that reminded me of Beach Fossils. They played dreamy rock and were fun to watch. The lead singer reminded me of Mac Demarco in his persona as well as his mismatched Vans and lime green guitar. Go Cozy did indeed make me feel cozy, one might even say dazed, but they were good nonetheless.
All in all my recomendation would be to go to as many free punk shows as you can. They may be a mixed bag, but they are fun and a true DC experience.