Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Punk Rock Show

The Evens supported by Perrosky, Thursday 22 March 2007, Galpón Victor Jara, Santiago, Chile.

The "Galpón Victor Jara" turned out to be exactly what the name suggested - a large shed, with a stage at one of the short ends, a rake of seats at the other, and a large open space in between. I was surprised to find a small bar by the entrance, offering a range of alcoholic drinks - this was the first time I had found such a thing at a live music venue in Chile, barring the Fiestas Patrias marquees which are not typical. Probably about a thousand people could squeeze in if they sold out all tht tickets. I arrived about half an hour early, and was able to get a place at the front, just to the right of the stage. I had been doubtful about whether many people would come, but by the time the support act Perrosky came on stage a good crowd had assembled, big enough to make the place feel cosy without being too stressful.

The mysteriously-named Perrosky turned out to be two men in their thirties, both wearing chocolate-coloured suits and ties. The formality of their appearance was reduced somewhat by their hairstyles, the singer / guitarist having long hair and the drummer having the closest thing to an Afro that I have ever seen on a Chilean. Their music was wonderful, a stripped-down vital mix of rock and blues that got most people tapping their feet and generally enjoying themselves. The lead singer claimed that they were really nervous but it did not show at all once they got going. He also expressed a debt of gratitude to Ian Mackaye of The Evens for having inspired them to set up their own independent record label. They played a short set of six or seven songs, that left me wanting more - I later did what I have not done for ages, and rushed out to buy the album.

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The interlude was marked by the usual movements of musical equipment off and on the stage, and was remarkably brief. One of the good things about duos is that it cuts everything down to a minimum. The Evens' set basically consisted of a living-room lamp at each end of the stage, and, er, that was it. The main stage lights were all switched off except for a single overhead spotlight that created strong shadows and made life difficult for those hoping to take photos.

Ian Mackaye and Amy Farina came on stage and The Evens' show started with a brief introductory speech from Ian, who as well as expressing how happy they were to be here in Santiago, said that it was an honour to play in this particular venue, owned by the Victor Jara Foundation, because "his (Victor Jara's) story... proves that music is no f***ing joke". Ian limited his efforts to communicate in Spanish to getting members of the audience who understood English to translate, which was not ideal but things seemed to muddle along quite nicely. He went on to explain that they wanted the concert to be a shared effort between them and the audience, something that unfortunately got lost in the translation (the woman who had been brought up on stage to translate did not know how to translate this and ended up saying something along the lines that they wanted everyone to have a good time together), but nevertheless was gradually put into practice by trial and error. The good thing was that Ian was not shy at all about speaking to the audience as if they all understood perfect English, and I got the impression that quite a large proportion of the message did get through to most people, if only indirectly as those that understood some English translated to their friends.

After requesting the crowd to listen, not talk ("we're a very quiet band, so if you want to talk, go outside") the music started with "Shelter Two", the opening track from "12 songs", their debut album. From where I was standing, the sound was perfect, with the guitar, vocals and drums all sounding distinct and well-balanced in the mix. A few layers of some of the recorded tracks were missing from the live versions of the songs, but the vast majority of the music sounded as good or better live - including the distinctive use of reverb on Amy's bass drum that made the beats echo as if in an enormous cavernous space.

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Live, the songs were performed with an energy that is there in the recorded versions but does not come across with such force as it did on stage. Ian played his guitar with such energy that at times it looked like he was going to fall off his stool. Amy somehow managed to sing beautifully and play the drums at the same time, which was impressive - just playing the drums looks like hard work enough.

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The audience was called on to collaborate with an "epic fade-out chorus" at the end of "You Won't Feel a Thing" - "Until the day you wake up" (repeat to fade). "What's 'fade out' in Spanish?" - no one knew, but the concept was somehow communicated anyway. We all sang along happily, and received an applause from the stage for our efforts.

There were several points where the sound of people chattering at the back of the hall was uncomfortably loud relative to the music, which clearly annoyed the band, prompting a bit of a telling-off from Ian: "We've come along way to play, people have paid money to hear us play, so please, if you want to talk, go outside ... you are f***ing with our show" Confrontation with elements of his audience has marked Ian Mackaye's career from the hardcore punk days of Minor Threat, whose fans' violent slam-dancing at concerts led to a change of musical style that was Fugazi. Fugazi's audiences were more peaceful but still occasionally featured confrontations between the band and aggressive members of the crowd, who were sometimes marched out of the venue by Mackaye himself. The progressive mellowing-out of Mackaye's music has continued with The Evens, and here the audience was peaceful and amicable, but just would not stop talking! Someone at the front insisted on asking Ian questions just as they were starting a song "Is this really the right moment to ask me that? ... we can talk about that later". Another person would repetitively call out "Full Disclosure" (a track from the last Fugazi album) and laugh at himself as if he had just done something really funny.

Ian commented at one point "we're going to have to ask them to close the bar" and went on to explain that "we normally try to play shows in places where music is not normally played ... because they always want to sell things, which is OK, but where things are sold, people have to talk ... music was here before industry, music was here before the music industry, music was here before the rock music industry, music was here before .. everything, and music's not a f***ing joke". Amy Farina was less talkative but did chip in with "I'm the nasty one, so watch out" and a charming smile when Ian was in mid-rant, saying "I'm not a nasty guy"... this added a much-needed dose of humour to the proceedings and lightened things up a bit.

We were called on to participate once more on "Mount Pleasant Isn't", with the chorus "the police will not be excused / the police will not behave". This song was put into context with the explanation that it was about the 1991 riots in the Mount Pleasant area of Washington D.C., when the response of the police was "like when there is something burning ... and you throw gasoline on it". This was a topic that would have been familiar to most people who have attended a demonstration in Santiago, which almost routinely end in violent clashes between police and demonstrators. It often seems like the use of water cannon and tear gas by the police just tends to exclude the non-violent demonstrators and turns the streets into an arena for running battles with hooded demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails. We got the opportunity to practice the chorus a few times before the song, which was just as well because the first few attempts did not cut it. By about the third time we achieved the required volume and when our time came in the actual song Ian and Amy looked quite pleased, and we got some more applause for our efforts.

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It was not all up-tempo sing-alongs, several of their quieter songs also got played, and I have to say it was almost like hearing them for the first time. In the bustle of day to day life there are times when I tend to not give music the attention it deserves if it does not produce instant gratification. For instance, "Sara Lee", despite suffering from the chattering noise coming from the back of the hall, was a really moving experience performed live, as were several other of the quieter songs. The recorded version of this song features some quiet, tuneful whistling at the beginning, and we were asked to fill in as Ian explained "I can't whistle live". I fear that we were not much better; Amy Farina seemed to be the only person who was up to the job of whistling tunefully.

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The concert ended with "Everyone Knows", which was introduced with the words "this song is a celebration of George Bush leaving office (cheers from the crowd) ... governments are like the weather ... bad governemts can knock buildings down, but eventually they go, and the people put the buildings back up again ... there is lots of work to be done". The song did not really need much explanation, and was a joy to jump up and down and sing along to. To all those who are looking forward to the departure of Dubya, I would recommend the album "Get Evens" if only for this song - it perfectly captures the feelings of anger, indignation, frustration, of having been cheated, of wanting justice, and of eventually getting even; building up in a crescendo to the explosive salvo of "you're fired / from a job you should never have had".

By the time the concert was over I had been reduced to a state of dumb-struck bliss, feeling like a teenager again. Ian and Amy came to the front of the stage to meet the fans and my mind went blank, I did not know what to say. Other people seemed more prepared for the opportunity and asked some reasonably intelligent questions. I shook Ian by the hand and mumbled something pretty feeble and idiotic like "great show ... I saw you in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1991 ... any chance of Fugazi getting back together?". He looked at me and I dread to think what he thought of me, but he said "Naah, we don't think like that ... We're The Evens now". Amy mentioned that they were heading on to Buenos Aires in about 5 hours, which would probably explain why they got cracking packing up their equipment after a short while, watched by a crowd of happy fans from the front of the stage.

I was left to float out of the door feeling inspired and with some happy memories, some of them a bit disjointed and out of context, like the point at which Ian said something along the lines of "This is a f***ing punk rock show ... punk is not about your clothes, punk is not about your hairstyle, punk is not even a type of music ... punk is a free space". The concert was memorable for the music but also for the spirit with which they approached the event, of wanting to make the show together with the audience. The song "if it's water" starts with the line "true, even doesn't mean the same as equal" and this idea was put into practice in the way they insisted on their right to play their music without being drowned out by chatter, but on the other hand tried to make us all part of the event, with minimal stage lighting and maximum interaction between the band and their audience.