Arts Desk

DC Punk 2008 Part 1: Mark Andersen

We asked several local harDCore figures to weigh in on the state of the arts in 2008; punk rock or otherwise. First in a series of 6 articles, Dance of Days author Mark Andersen recounts his favorite shows of 2008:

In 2008, the ghosts of DC’s punk past were out in full force: Dave Grohl returned to play the Virgin Festival with his Grammy-winning Foo Fighters, while Government Issue reunited to headline a multi-band show that ran to the early morning hours at the Rock and Roll Hotel. Gray Matter powerfully evoked the spirit of Food for Thought shows and Revolution Summer with a reunion show at the Black Cat’s 15th Anniversary celebration. For its part, Good Charlotte managed to evade the Hollywood gutter press for long enough to play a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club. Henry Rollins brought his mix of humor and social commentary to the Birchmere on election eve. The next night, trailblazing Afro-punks Bad Brains returned to the stage at 9:30, reminding the audience just how mind-blowing they had been when their singer, HR, was still able to focus and channel the immense power of the band and their insurrectional songs.

Meanwhile, with Virgin Festival taking over the space vacated by the HFStival, and H Street corridor clubs like the Hotel wrangling with the Black Cat and 9:30 for the rock audience, everything could start to feel awfully business-like. There was no major rallying point, like last year’s proposed ban on all-ages clubs, and there weren’t any Fugazi-style standard-bearers for the scene; in fact, the leading contender, Georgie James, went the way of all flesh. So did DIY endeavors like the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop and the Bobby Fisher Building, leaving the defiant punk stores Crooked Beat and Smash to carry the homegrown-indie flag in the era of the cyber-market.

Despite it all, underground punk—or the sort that just snuck out the basement door, looking back longingly—was still alive and kicking in the birthplace of harDCore.

1. The Evens @ Wilson Center (aka Capital City Public Charter School)

Yes, this show is from late 2007, so it arguably shouldn’t be here. Nonetheless, in this last DC gig before taking a family-oriented hiatus, Amy Farina and Ian MacKaye showcased something truly unique, thought-provoking, and beautiful: a politically pointed punk drive mated with a Jonathan Richman “wouldn’t hurt the ear of a baby” low-volume vibe. And talk about all-ages… the Evens routinely bring together vastly different generations. At this show, neighborhood seniors mixed with teenage (and not so teen-aged) punks as well as a passel of rowdy post-toddlers up front. The evening conjured a spirit of warmth that was punk in all the most soulful, unexpected ways—and, best of all, it was happening right where so much of DC punk history was born.

2. Leftover Crack/Magrudergrind/Max Levine Ensemble/Starve @ St. Stephen’s

Swinging back towards the other end of the punk maturity spectrum, NY’s controversial Leftover Crack today stands more or less unchallenged in popularity and radical stances; a kind of 21st century hybrid of MDC and Operation Ivy. While the band’s “kill-the-cops” rhetoric is awfully tiresome, their passion–and that of their crowd–is undeniable. While I had the misfortune to be one of those responsible for keeping alcohol away from the packed venue–and out of the hands of the vastly underage crowd–the genuine excitement in the air, and sense of open-ended possibility of the night was exhilarating.

3. Defiance, Ohio/Max Levine Ensemble/The Andalusians @ St. Stephen’s

As the combination of this and the former entry suggests, something of an underground benefit-punk scene has been regenerating at St. Stephen’s over the past year or two, encouraged by Positive Force DC veterans (like me), in alliance with friends at the Infoshop, Positive Youth Fest, and the Bobby Fisher Memorial Building collective. While past shows with Strike Anywhere, Zegota, and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb were also notable, this evening proved that vibrant and organic parts of DC’s DIY/anarcho-punk scene are still very much in play, rising past the ever-bustling house show circuit.

4. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists/Against Me!/Future Of The Left @ Black Cat

No show in 2008 more successfully evoked the power of DC punk at its late ‘80s/early ‘90s peak than this benefit for We Are Family (the senior service group I work for)–and it wasn’t just because of the set-ending surprise appearance by Alec MacKaye singing Ignition’s “Kiwi Chant,” backed by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. Bolstered by the addition of fellow D.C. punk expatriate James Canty on second guitar, Leo brought a spark, verve, and intensity to a whole range of punk-related genres from ska, mod, new wave, and hardcore, remaking them into original sounds as vital and essential as any music in any era. Gainesville, Florida’s Against Me! had the unenviable mission of following that performance, but proved themselves up to the task, rousing the crowd with sing-along choruses, urgent lyrics, and sweat-drenched guitar flourishes. All in all, the night suggested music could still move people into action, on the dance floor and beyond.

5. Gil Scott-Heron @ 9:30 Club

DC punk (as I know it) exists in a cultural context enriched by some of the nation’s most significant African-American artists. Gil Scott-Heron has been one of these giants, playing a significant role in not only jazz and blues, but in the birth of hip-hop as well. Heron’s most fertile creative period coincided with his years in DC; apparently, this is also where this revolutionary artist and activist developed what is rumored to be a life–and-career-threatening drug addiction. Sadly, Heron’s first full-fledged DC concert in many years — no Blues Alley mini-set here — did not allay concerns about his wellbeing. Still, the gaunt Heron was a commanding figure, mixing stand-up comic wit with convincing renditions of his incendiary classics, ably backed by a fiery, tight ensemble.

Mark Andersen is author of two books, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital and All the Power: Revolution without Illusion. He is also the founder of activist group Positive Force and senior outreach group We Are Family.

All contributors to this series were guests on DISSONANCE, a DC punk oral histories show on Radio CPR. Mark Andersen's interview can be found here.

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