LIVE REPORT: New York’s Alright

Joseph Neighbor finds NY's inaugural punk fest as it should be: a set of excellent bands with not a hint of festival buddying-up to be seen. Photograph courtesy of Tod Seelie/

This spring, American punks are blessed with a bevy of fests that represent just about every stripe of radical music. Chaos In Tejas will return to Austin in a few weeks; the inaugural Damaged City Fest was just held in Washington, D.C.; even the old timers get their fun at the Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival, to be held in Las Vegas this May.

And for us New Yorkers, we had the first New York’s Alright fest, which was held across Manhattan and Brooklyn this last weekend. There are a few good reasons for this to exist. One: NYC is the womb in which punk as we know it gestated. Two: It’s been a really long time since it’s had a punk fest befitting its legacy. Three: The current local punk/hardcore scene is exceptional, and deserves a proper showcase.

While Chaos In Tejas brings together all the marquee names – many of whom are really old and few of which are actually based in Austin – New York’s Alright features a ton of excellent, young local bands. Perdition is perhaps the finest D-beat group in the U.S., and have just recently toured Japan with the mighty D-Clone. Hank Wood And The Hammerheads’ Go Home!, released last year, already sounds like a bona fide classic. And then there’s the inexplicably catchy Crazy Spirit, who use the same shuffling, C&W beat in every song to propel some supremely clever guitar riffs and the vocals of what sounds like a prepubescent Darby Crash throwing a temper tantrum.

The line-up was rounded out by some high calibre bands from the northeast (Hoax, Bloodkrow Butcher, Aspects Of War), Canada (Kremlin, Truncheons), the UK (Violent Reaction) and the midwest (No Class, Question), among other places. Glam, from Barcelona, played two sets and absolutely destroyed the room both times. And noise purveyors Stagnation were flown all the way from Japan just to irreparably destroy the eardrums of attendees, I’m pretty sure.

Cülo – considered by many (myself included) to be the U.S.’s premier punk group – played not once, but twice. There is something classic about this band. Two guitarists, a drummer, and a vocalist that wears a black leather jacket and a beret, and has this strange static stage presence that looks totally incongruous with the chaos ensuing around him. Their tone is lean and direct and refreshingly un-metal; their persona is one of deliberate stupidity and nihilism – classic, I know. If you took the Ramones and stripped away the Spector/Ronettes influence and retooled the engine so it could go faster: that’s what Cülo sounds like.

While their two sets were the most memorable, they were also the most frustrating – both were marred by agonisingly long pauses in between songs, where they were just kind of hanging out. At the Acheron on Saturday night, one of the guitarists was so drunk he couldn’t tune his guitar, so we all just stood around watching him. And then, just when I’m getting annoyed, they play ‘Shooting Glue’, about as infectious and thoroughly rocking as any punk song ever written. Then they play the same song again, which is perfect because I’ve never listened to that song once without immediately re-playing it. How could I be upset after that?

Uneasiness is a theme of DIY punk shows, something shared with no other genre. You aren’t coddled, that’s for sure. Bands rarely introduce themselves, and uniformly forgo the stage patter and pleasantries that are so common in slick, big-ticket rock shows. Many times you’re not entirely sure which band is playing. Sometimes you can’t even tell whether they’re playing, or just testing the sound levels. At a good show, you know when they’ve begun because that’s when people start jumping on your head. And in general when they’re done, they just stop. No encores, ever. What you want and what you’re going to get never completely line up; uneasiness and surprise lies in the gap between the two.

Hank Wood And The Hammerheads’ live set looks and sounds like the ultimate birthday party. I think they are six members, but can’t be sure due to the endless stream of crowdsurfers. They definitely have, in addition to a drummer, a full-time percussionist, who has what appears to be a single foot-long dreadlock coming from the back of his otherwise bald head. The guitars are twangy and sometimes reminiscent of rockabilly, and the rhythm section has this kind of proto-punk swagger about it. On top of the mix is a blaring Farfisa organ, and a barking, totally unhinged vocalist – Hank, I assume – who once pissed off just about the entire U.S. punk scene by killing a chicken on-stage.

Dawn Of Humans: possibly Brooklyn’s best band, and without doubt its creepiest (watch their set below). Their name is apt; they sound like something that’s been buried for millennia and only recently disinterred, and like the Homo rudolfensis, they’re remarkably like us, yet somehow indelibly different. They twist the punk rock template with elliptical riffs that never seem to end where they began; the vocalist gurgles and shrieks and crows in a way that brings to mind David Yow.

The vocalist comes out onto the stage completely nude, with black body-paint smeared all over his face and body. He’s wearing football shoulder-pads to which he’s affixed long strands of black tissue paper; at first, the tissue is rigged as to obscure his face, but as he thrashes about he’s losing tissue by the minute until, near the end of the set, he’s standing there completely in the buff. His penis is wrapped in electrical tape in such a way as to look like a permanent boner. And he won’t stop playing with it.

Honorable mentions: Green Beret, from NY/MA, who play crashing D-beat with more imagination that your average Discharge idolaters; NY’s Creem, who obliterated on Saturday night with a set of SSD-inspired stompers; the icy, immensely danceable Anasazi, sounding like Joy Division if Ian Curtis took it out on the world instead of himself.

In the final analysis, New York’s Alright didn’t feel so much like a fest as it did a collection of really good shows. The NY punk scene has a coldness, a standoffishness, that I thought would be diluted by the influx of hundreds of outsiders. It wasn’t; the visitors seemed to emulate the locals. Like every NYC show, the number of fantastic bands were many and the instances of bonhomie few. But the fest succeeded in showcasing our best bands at our best venues, as well as bringing in a few surprise acts, providing some compelling evidence to back up my brash, reckless claim that NYC has the America’s most exciting punk rock scene. One can only hope this is will be a recurring event.

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