“Ian McKaye was baptized here,” said Positive Force organizer Mark Anderson to a crowd of hundreds of hardcore fans gathered at St. Stephen’s Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The throng was assembled to enjoy the music and culture that the Minor Threat frontman helped generate more than thirty years ago.
Washington, D.C.’s Damaged City Fest focused on straight-up hardcore this year. The lineup, while less diverse than last year’s, provided a cross-section of pioneering and contemporary fast, heavy, and sometimes political music.
After Pure Disgust (whose set I missed) kicked off the fest, Andersen addressed the crowd. He outlined the revolutionary history of St. Stephen’s, touting the church’s extremely progressive stances on race, sexual orientation, and other pressing issues of the last 50 years. Reaching out to marginalized groups of people seems to be a goal of the church, which he described as “a church that overthrows.”
Frank Dunn – the church’s priest – came onstage afterwards, wearing jeans and a casual black parishioner’s shirt. He gave a brief sermon, telling the audience “You’re the parish here. We exist for you.”
Dunn expressed some confusion about alternative lifestyles – tattoos, piercings, the music – but he seemed to get the overall gist of punk. He closed his speech by stating that “Christianity isn’t about what you believe. It’s about how you live.”
These statements brought to mind a series of questions. For example: Is hardcore about what you believe or is it about how you live? What purpose does it serve? Why does hardcore exist? What does it mean? Is it just a forum for catharsis? Why should one choose to devote one’s life to it? You can have a pleasant job, a comfortable life, worship Jesus, whatever. Can you do all that and maintain a steely core? Can a person serve two masters? Beyond fast music and fun times, what does hardcore music have to offer?
GREEN BERET was incredibly hard-hitting. I first caught sight of an actual bouncer on stage, wearing a classic black shirt with “SECURITY” in white on it. The band provided breakdowns at a fly-by pace driven by drums played with incredible violence. The lanky lead singer stalked back and forth. Guitars, while heavy, served more of a support for the maniacal pounding. “We’re gonna fucking pander to you people,” the lead singer said before the band ripped into a cover that I did not recognize, but apparently the fans did!
Following the youth of Beret was a 4-piece with a more upbeat style. VIOLENT REACTION consisted of dudes with short hair. A solo with three discernible notes was played, and it worked. The band focused on fast, catchy riffs, with an extra guitar adding depth.
Between sets I saw some old faces from the good old days, and a lot of people from out of town. One “old head” said in passing conversation, “Last time I was here was for Jawbox in 1993.” A tall German in a Minutemen shirt passed by. His last time at St. Stephen’s was 22 years ago.
RIVAL MOB’s bassist wore a proper cardigan, and luckily the band had longhairs in the lineup. That’s generally a plus. The set opened with the lead singer saying, “D.C.: A city of political agendas. We’re Rival Mob, and here’s our fucking political agenda” before holding the microphone up to a silent band. He had the moves of a professional wrestler, flailing his arms as if he were drowning, and swiping away at imagined foes.
It was very entertaining. Many young men were mouthing the lyrics, as if it was an automatic reaction. Maybe it was.
The virtual award for Best Outfits of the Night goes to GOVERNMENT ISSUE, the self-proclaimed dinosaurs of punk. John Stabb wore an oversized button-down shirt with a bleeding eye symbol painted on it. The gnarly guitar swirled around, with the melody held down primarily by busted bass lines. The guitarist wore a somewhat gaudy vertical-striped button-down shirt and played with sloppy perversity. Stabb shared an anecdote from the band’s first run in the ’80s: A bandmate asked the guitarist, “How do you sound so crazy?” and he said, “I just take old Rolling Stones chords, and you know, speed ’em up.”
GI captured the unfettered imagination and freedom that’s present in their recordings from the ’80s. Stabb made little attempt to make his songs relevant to the audience of 2014, mainly sticking to contextualizing them with anecdotes from his memories. The performance landed closer to tormented and amused art-punk in its delivery than to general-issue hardcore.
Audience reaction was minimal, but for a band that prides itself on alienation, I’m not sure that mattered. A five-second version of “Stepping Stone,” a classic D.C. punk cover popularized by Minor Threat (and, before that, by the Sex Pistols), really pleased the crowd for five seconds. It was pleasing to me to see such interrupted pleasure.
GI is a group of grown men who enjoy torturing each other and the crowd. The security dude smiled and pumped his fist gingerly.
LOS CRUDOS played short songs with the most primal screams of the night. Their songs were paced well, building up to true pulverization. The band’s lead singer, Martin Sorrondeguy, has a way of addressing the crowd as if he were speaking directly to you. He was wearing a GAS RAG shirt and did kick-jumps across the stage. His nimble stage moves accompanied a set that challenged the audience instead of looking backwards.
Sorrondeguy offered stories about the time and place each song was written. The music must have been ahead of its time in terms of its style and delivery. He called out the racial separation in the audience (“all the Spanish people are up front”) and invited everyone to join, saying “We ain’t separatist.” When he spoke to the audience directly in Spanish, I felt a chill of excitement. The pit started up.
I don’t speak Spanish, but seeing Los Crudos share their message in this space – where I have nearly always seen mostly white, mostly English-speaking bands play – was still really awesome.
Oftentimes people enjoy music because it validates their feelings. Bands without political messages subtly validate feelings and sentiments like apathy, disenfranchisement, nihilism, resignation, and conservatism. I’m not interested in supporting any of those things. For me, Crudos were the most relevant band of the night because they spoke directly to race and class.
In line with this, Martin directly addressed the women present in the pit and the rest of the venue. They rushed the stage for “That’s Right We’re That Spic Band.”
Is it possible to change the world or to impact one small part of it through independence, ingenuity, working together, and fast music? Is hardcore still relevant? These are valid questions, and ones that should be asked as we face (or fail to face) difficult social, spiritual, and environmental problems.
Hardcore music is often deceptively simple. Its simplicity is misleading, and consequently many overlook its most valuable currency, which is challenging ideas.