It’s a time-honored tradition for the elder statesmen of an erstwhile cultural zeitgeist to decry their loss of influence and primacy, directing specific vitriol against those younger artists who, while clearly influenced by the elders in question, bring their own personalities and proclivities to their own particular sphere of influence. This is especially true in the insular, indier-than-thou world(s) of cult music, cult music being a scene descriptor, not a genre unto itself. These are those rarefied worlds filled with pockets of fervent fandom and the mundane familiarity of Norm and Sam and Cliff and Frasier. These are ad hoc groups, less organized than inevitable, formed out of common interest and a shared outsider status.
There’s something psychologically provocative about an idiosyncratic scene of like-minded individuals, particularly one whose common bonds are characterized by the lacking mass popularity of their common good. To wit, a congregation such as the D.C. punk scene (which has more in common with other self-promoting and cliquish local circles of trust — journalists, politicos, society mavens — than it would ever want to admit).
But that’s not the story here, despite the community’s underlying contradictions. The now-adult-aged assembly that gave us Ian and Henry and Kathleen and Dave (and many, many others) has remained actively interested in passing along its values and, to a degree, its sound, to the generations that follow. And so, on this April evening at this Upper NW D.C. pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, that 30-year old scene has risen again this Easter, pushed towards the establishment’s rear and enveloped by the comforts of a familiar crowd. The implicit assumption, of course: no one here is a tourist, this a club-members-only show.
The room is full, the Elders in attendance await the now-headlining generation that seeks to fill estimable shoes while leaving its own footprints in time. And, the elders are still contributing; Kid Congo Powers is on the decks as we await the District’s own Chain and the Gang, fronted by Ian F Svenonius and including the estimable singing and ax-wielding talents of Betsy Wright, also of Ex Hex (her Ex Hex bandmates are present, providing moral support).
Chain and the Gang is punk, even when they’re not. It’s an appropriate sound either way, feeling retro and present, East Coast and West Coast, familiar and yet foreign. We may as well be in an Orange County beach town garage as the back of this East Coast pizza joint, their sound is fittingly non-traditional and slightly disorienting in both time and place. Svenonius’ talents as a frontman are well-known and have not diminished over time. His energy is invigorating and abrupt, an homage to the past and a lesson for the future. The guitar cuts, the bass pounds, the drums kick, the keys provide an otherworldly connection. It’s a dark vibe, Jon Spencer meets the unfortunately illuminative light of morning, the situation requiring a call to Mr. Wolf.
Chain and the Gang
The Gang’s therapy session comes to an end, and it’s at this point that The Clash‘s eternal question, “Should I stay or should I go?” comes into play for those that may have come to support the local band. There’s the guy from Tiny Desk Unit more known for his Tiny Desk Concerts…the DJ / restauranteur best known for his decidedly not-of-this-scene group, Thievery Corporation, the blonde upon whom I crushed all those years ago, her work in Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin resonating to this day. And others, many others, their familiar faces triggering times and places even though introductions may never have occurred.
Invariably, they all stay put, all eager to take in an Atlanta grrrl band making the sort of visceral punk rock that formerly originated only in D.C., (with apologies to NYC, Southern California, and the U.K.). They stay, attentive and enthused, because what The Coathangers are doing in 2014 is as vital as it was in the 1980s or 90s, perhaps even more so after a largely lost decade in between then and now.
This iteration of the band has three members. All three sing. All three emote. All three rock. If they’d been based in Brooklyn a few years ago, they probably would have been vying with Vivian Girls for critical acclaim.
Songs like “Merry Go Round” feature zig zagging guitar riffs that fit somewhere between a Dischord Records and Teenbeat Records ethos. Others flirt with a more West Coast punk sound, say, Distillers meets Red Five meets Sleater Kinney, with varying dosages of each band lathered onto a series of spicy pies of rock and roll sustenance. (Sorry…couldn’t help it).
A mosh pit develops, a relatively controlled, communal experience vs. the testosterone-laden jackasses who romped during The Replacements‘ set at Coachella, spinning here and there and everywhere without a code or any purpose larger than themselves. Here, there’s a shared ethos, a desired catharsis, and furious moments shared between band and audience as poignant punk washes over the room.
No matter who’s singing lead, throaty vocals emerge from somewhere deep inside, a dark place occupied with bile and acid and the decomposing flesh of the vanquished. Songs meld into each other, not for lack of variety so much as a consistent demeanor and tonality. Many in the room came out for this sort of thing all those years ago, and it’s what they’ve reconvened for this evening. And, it’s perfect.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
Comet Ping Pong, Washington, D.C.