Big-time rock reunions come in various forms. There’s the aging band—like The Who—that’s perpetually playing its “final” concert. There’s the once-edgy band—like the Pixies—that admits it’s trying to make money. And there’s the gang of former road warriors—.38 Special, say—playing the dreaded state fair circuit.
Local punk reunions also have a rough taxonomy. Sometimes, they’re genuine comebacks: Scream is releasing new material. Dag Nasty did the same with 2002’s Minority of One. Reformed post-punk bands like the U.K.’s Wire and Boston’s Mission of Burma have released critically acclaimed new material since the 2000s.
Others are one-off affairs: Marginal Man isn’t planning any follow-up shows. D.C.-formed indie-pop labels Slumberland and TeenBeat have assembled lineups of old acts for anniversary gigs. Of course, some of those one-offs elide into something more: After a few years of pursuing a solo career to poor reviews, Travis Morrison resurrected The Dismemberment Plan for a “one-time only” reunion benefit concert in 2007. Tickets sold out within minutes; three years later, D-Plan was back on tour.
And then there’s the tricky third category: Half-existence. Many of the oldest hardcore acts—Bad Brains, Agnostic Front—have been touch and go for so long that it’s difficult to pinpoint the reunion from the rest of the band’s career.
Whatever the reunion archetype, there have been a lot of them. First-wave D.C. punks The Slickee Boys reunite almost every year at the 9:30 Club. And while Marginal Man may not have exactly been marginal to the local scene in its day, many of the reuniting acts were: ’90s hardcore band Fairweather sold out the Black Cat in May. Damnation A.D., metalcore favorites from the same era, will open the Marginal Man reunion gig.
While a group like Mission of Burma can take its reunited self on the road, there’s only one place most of these bands can play: their hometown. If no one in Kansas City had heard of them back in the day, it’s a good bet no one there would come out to see them now. But the District is home to old friends—not to mention a music community whose younger members cherish the history.
“There’s no fucking way some of these bands could tour around the country,” says Steve Lambert, who books at Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, and Red Palace.
Last year, Saturday Night Live aired a skit that provoked an ecstatic reaction from obscure corners of the Internet. Set at a wedding, the skit opens with an old man in a tuxedo who asks his daughter, the bride, if she wouldn’t mind if he got his old band together and played a song in her honor. Four other paunchy, middle aged guys, including Dave Grohl and guest host Ashton Kutcher, trudge up on stage. Suddenly, they launch into a blistering ’80s hardcore anthem that’s half Dead Kennedys, half Suicidal Tendencies. Tables are overturned. Kutcher’s mic doesn’t work. SNL’s Fred Armisen—himself a Chicago music-scene vet—raves in his best Jello Biafra impersonation:
“When Ronald Reagan comes around/
He brings the fascists to your town/
You think it’s cool to be a jock/
But we get beat up by the cops.”
At the climax, Armisen knocks over a tray of champagne glasses and yells “You hear that, Alexander Haig?”
Punk and indie reunions have become more frequent and visible in recent years, possibly because artists have more incentive to kick out the old jams.
Singer Black Francis has copped to bringing the Pixies back for financial reasons. “I did the arty farty part,” he told the website The Quietus last year. “Now it’s time to talk about the money.” Francis still makes solo records, but his band has been permanently reunited since 2004. Last year, Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard shared with The Wall Street Journal a similar sentiment: that the group’s first motivation for reuniting was getting paid.
It makes sense. American record sales have declined every year from 2004 to 2010 amid the digital upheaval that has shaken the music industry. One thing independent acts can no longer count on is steady revenue from their back catalogs—which is why touring has taken on new financial appeal.
But if you go to an indie rock reunion show, you see another phenomenon at work: The old bands’ audiences have grown. Pavement, which used to play nightclubs, can fill amphitheaters; the Pixies have filled arenas. A Fugazi reunion could probably fill RFK Stadium.
That tendency has trickled down, too. Miniscule bands have become tiny ones. Once-tiny bands can now sell out the Black Cat.
“I think it started with the Internet, and people being able to get anything they want” says Carlos Izurieta, the singer of D.C. hardcore band Police and Thieves and the once-reunited Worn Thin. “Records may be out of print, but people put them online. A lot of younger kids discover older bands, and it generates interest among kids who never got to see them.”