No one was doing the standing still when The Dismemberment Plan took the stage of the Black Cat this January. When frontman Travis Morrison wagged his finger side to side, girl group style, the crowd aped him. They pogoed. They shouted choice lyrics. They invaded the stage when beckoned. At one point, the audience was so loud the band stopped playing.
It was just like old times: Over its 1993-2003 run, the Plan was known for raucous, ritual-bound live shows. Eight years later, those rituals came roaring back to life: There is one way to enjoy a Dismemberment Plan concert, and that is as if you are 17.
Some fans at the January shows—and at subsequent dates throughout the U.S. and Japan—were in fact 17. But most looked to be in their late 20s and early 30s. There were also more of them than there had been in the glory years. The band says it never sold out a show in advance during its original existence; on the weekend of January 23, it packed the Black Cat on Friday night and filled the 9:30 Club on Saturday and Sunday. And they’re still at it: Last weekend, the Plan played to thousands at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Music, more than almost any other art form, can bring a listener right back to some frozen spot in the past. But The Dismemberment Plan’s reunion weekend, in fact, wasn’t really about recapturing some faded zeitgeist at all. It felt distinctly contemporary, and for good reason: We are living in the golden age of the reunion gig. Sure, iterations of Lynyrd Skynyrd have been regrouping in small-market arenas for decades, but today even the creative and the countercultural are getting the band back together.
What’s going on? The appeals, at least among corporate acts, are obvious: The music. The glory. The fans. The money.
But in the last decade or so, reunions have grown from a phenomenon of mostly mainstream pop and rock to include a significant number of A- and B-list indie bands. It’s not just Genesis and Fleetwood Mac. And it isn’t even just the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr., and Pavement—indie bands with a true national following who on their reunion tours command far larger audiences than they drew the first time around.
In a punk town like Washington, D.C., the trend also involves plenty of reunions by bands whom even WHFS didn’t deign to play. In the last couple of years, long-retired D.C. hardcore bands Scream and Government Issue returned to the stage to capacity crowds. Marginal Man will play its first show since 1995 on August 20 at the Black Cat. Gray Matter reformed in 2008 for the 15th anniversary of the Black Cat, which drummer Dante Ferrando co-owns. Dag Nasty got back together in 2002 and 2010, and has promised to reunite “at least once each decade.”
Watching some group of geezers tour the country on the back of some No.-3 hit from 1974, it’s easy to assume financially rewarding, musically mediocre hucksterism is afoot. But with hardcore reunions, the math doesn’t really point to a sellout: A group like Marginal Man might play a single show—and might even wind up in a vastly bigger venue than ever, thanks to the novelty—but they’re hardly looking at the kind of payday that represents an affront to their old DIY ethos.
All the same, it’s worth pausing to consider what it means when national reunion culture collides with local musical tradition. Reunions highlight a fundamental tension in niche genres like punk rock (and even more niche subgenres like hardcore), with crowds full of punk kids steeped in the genre’s lore and pulled between the equally strong traditions of rebellion and self-mythology.
A scene as seminal as D.C.’s feels the weight of history more heavily than most. If everyone you met who claimed to have seen Swiz at the Safari Club in 1989 was telling the truth, the joint surely would have been shut down by a fire marshal.
An admiration for punk’s pioneers, and familiarity with the minutiae of their musical output, still weeds the posers from the true believers. At U Street Music Hall in June, when a pair of 45-year-olds still calling themselves Youth of Today played a set, it was clear that the reverence for punk’s past was winning out over at least some of the traditional notions of the genre.
Compared to the infamous and widely panned Sex Pistols reunion of 1996—a blatant moneymaking effort whose actual name was the Filthy Lucre tour—D.C.’s low-key, friend-filled local punk reunions are a nice thing. And they come with the recognition that no one’s trying to rebottle any lightning. But the non-slimy intentions make it even harder to ask a fairly basic question: Do the reunions blow?