I think it is obvious, from all of my writing about it, that I love music. As you probably know, I try to share write-ups of all the great concerts that I go to in the DC area with you here at We Love DC. The shows that I share here represent about half of the shows that I see annually. I also spend a lot of time traveling the country and sometimes the world attending special concert events like Spiritualized at Radio City Music Hall, or Hallo Gallo (Michael Rother + Friends of Neu!). These shows don’t always get written about because I consider them my vacations. Some shows though are just so rare and unique that I feel compelled to share them here, even if they have nothing to do with DC. Such is the case with my trip to Minneapolis last weekend to attend the Amphetamine Reptile Records’ 25th Anniversary Bash.
Amphetamine Reptile Records is an indie record label that specializes in a particular brand of aggressive, depraved, barrier-busting rock and roll known as noise-rock. The bands on Am Rep pushed the noisier tendencies of hardcore and metal into a thousand different directions at once, producing some of the most creative, exciting, and challenging music known to man. Infamous for their crazed personalities and stage antics and famous for their musical innovation, the artist stable at Am Rep contains some of the most influential rockers you’ve never heard of. Grunge, alternative metal, and math-rock (just to name a few) would not be the same (or possibly have even existed) without Am Rep path-finders like The Thrown-ups, Hammerhead, Helmet, and Today Is The Day. Am Rep consistently put out amazing records that defined the noise-rock genre during their 15-year golden age. Since 2000, the label has been semi-retired, returning to the deep underground, releasing the occasional 7″, 12″ or album. Noise-rock is a genre near and dear to my heart, and Amphetamine Reptile Records is without question my favorite record label of all time. So when they announced that a slew of defunct Am Rep bands were reuniting in Minneapolis to celebrate the label’s 25th anniversary, I had the trip booked before my wife even had a chance to return my call to discuss it. If there is one concert worth being in doghouse for, it was this one.
I landed in Minneapolis on Saturday morning a few hours before the festival began and was riding in a Super Shuttle back to the airport a few hours after it ended.* This was about as close to a music special mission that I have ever been on. A tac-insert into Minneapolis with an in-and-out objective to witness some of the most mind-bending noise-rock ever made. The event was held in the parking lot behind Grumpy’s Downtown, the HQ for a chain of Minneapolis pubs owned by Am Rep founder Tom Hazelmeyer. It was in this back lot that about 900? Am Rep fans congregated to worship at the altar of noise. The crowd was composed of about 50% Minneapolis-region folks and 50% travelers like myself. I met people from Germany, Japan, Canada, California, even a few from Baltimore. I have to say for such an aggressive music genre, I don’t think I have ever been part of a more friendly and welcoming crowd.
The Bash featured nine bands that burned through afternoon and blazed through the evening representing the noisy, manic, insane, genius that is the Am Rep sound. For many like myself, this festival was a chance to celebrate this influential label by watching sets by some its very best bands for the first time. For others, the festival was like a joyous veterans’ day celebration of scene survivors. Some of these bands haven’t played together in well over a decade (most notably Hammerhead). Others haven’t played together in over a decade and have never played outside of Seattle (The Thrown-ups). A few are still going strong as noise-rock elder statesmen (The Melvins, Vaz, and Today Is The Day). While a couple of bands were there representing the new breed of the genre (White Drugs, Gay Witch Abortion).** Finally a few of the bands were invited to demonstrate their one-of-a-kind brilliance (God Bullies and Boss Hog). Each performance was an ear-splitting, fist-pumping, mind-melting reminder of how great Amphetamine Reptile Records was in its hey-day, and the physical ache and ringing ears they produced is a reminder of the label’s brutal but essential place in music history.
The Melvins: Leave it to Am Rep to go the unconventional route and have the festival’s “headliners” play first. The Melvins took the stage promptly at 1pm, while a long line of fans had yet to get inside the venue. Their set featured the precise two-headed drum-monster of Dale Crover and Coady Willis and the sludge guitar and bass of King Buzzo and Jared Warren. Their set was a blitzkrieg of heavy, grinding, bone-crushers and hyper-fast tempo change-ups. A highlight was an unexpected, crowd-chanting, rendition of The Ramones’ song, ‘Pinhead’.
Vaz: Up second was Vaz, the follow-up project formed by Hammerhead’s rhythm section. I have been a fan of their records for years but have never had a chance to catch Vaz in concert. They didn’t disappoint delivering a chest-thumping, chunky math-rock wrapped in layers of distortion. Their tunes were not very far from Hammerhead territory but they were just far enough to have their own identity. At one point their guitarist broke a string and drummer Jeff “Sauce” Mooridian tried to get the crowd to taunt him for the gaff, but the crowd (many still aching from missing The Melvins) didn’t play along. The otherwise excellent set certainly whet our appetites for the long-anticipated Hammerhead reunion to come later that evening.
The Thrown-Ups: I had been hearing about this band’s stage antics for decades. Not to mention their unintentional but epic musical legacy. Infamous for performing on-the-spot songs with no rehearsal whatsoever and disgusting, absurd stage pranks The Thrown-Ups are one of the all-time great chaos acts. Who could have known that, along with Green River, their swirling maelstrom of noise would be the incubator for Steve Turner and Mark Arm, who would later go onto form Mudhoney, the progenitor of Grunge.*** According to The Thrown-Ups lead singer, Eddy Fotheringham, this show was the first time the band had ever played outside of the Seattle area. I don’t know if that is true (funny for sure) but I do know that catching the Thrown-Ups live was so rare that even Am Rep head honcho Tom Hazelmeyer had never seen them! At one point Haze himself jammed on guitar with them from behind the stage. Their set was really everything one could hope for; total guitar, drum, and bass chaos mixed with madman vocals and physical absurdity. Dressed in trash-bag pants, perverted baby-tees, and tin-foil helmets the band noise-jammed while Fotheringham leapt about the stage, howled “I need a new Hoo-ha!” like a madman, drew all over himself with permanent marker, repeatedly stabbed himself in the groin and ass with a pencil, and finally ejaculated shaving cream all over the crowd and his band mates. At this point, I couldn’t help but think of the Glenn Beck army and smile. At the exact moment they were amassed on the National Mall at their “Honor” rally, I was half a country away watching a grown man squeeze simulated splooge all over a grinning crowd. This was one of the more depraved live performances I have ever seen and this set alone would have been worth a cross-country flight.
Today Is The Day: Here is a band I have been lucky enough to see once before. It was years ago here in DC and they played in that temple-looking building on U St. next to the storage facility. It’s some velvet rope club now. It cracks me up to think of Today Is The Day having played there. Before that show I had been dying to see Today Is The Day live, and ever since that show I have been dying to see them perform again. Today Is The Day is one of my favorite bands and the musical influence of their leader Steve Austin is monumental. The multitude of metal genres out there today, all owe a debt to Austin’s mad scientist work with Today Is The Day. The awe-inspiring nature of Austin live was in full force when Today Is The Day took the stage on Saturday. Austin plays like some kind of demon-possessed, wounded animal. His voice range is terrifying as he howls, cries, and whines tales of suffering, anger, and devil worship. His guitar playing is primal, bent over his guitar rendering noises that blew the crowd away. Even Unsane’s guitarist, Chris Spencer, shook his head in disbelief as he watched Austin annihilate on stage. Today is the Day has a rotating line-up and the current rhythm section of Ryan Jones and Curran Reynolds pounded away with impunity to round out what was definitely the most sonically abusive and brilliant set of the festival. (PS – Today Is The Day are playing the Ottobar in Baltimore on Wednesday…you’ve been warned.)
Shannon Selberg and Tom Hazelmeyer: Two bands that were a big presence on Am Rep that were not scheduled for the festival were The Cows and Halo of Flies. To mitigate some of the fan disappointment at this, Shannon Selberg (lead singer and bugler for The Cows) and Tom Hazelmeyer (Am Rep owner and H.O.F. leader) took to the stage unexpectedly before God Bullies. Selberg as infamous as Fotheringham for bizarre antics, took the stage in a cowboy hat and George Dubya mask. Backed by Hazelmeyer on guitar, Selberg played a tortured rendition of the national anthem on his bugle before ripping off his mask and introducing God Bullies. The band then took the stage and backed Selberg as he sang a twisted cover of ‘Shakin All Over’. This got the already pumped crowd singing along as Selberg slinked around the stage. He could have kept on going but graciously turned the stage over to God Bullies, who proceeded to put on another highlight set of the festival.
God Bullies: Like I had for The Thrown-Ups, I have been waiting years and years for a chance to see a God Bullies’ reunion. Musically their albums were a smorgasbord of samples, tape manipulation, depraved lyrics, and gut-wrenching noise instrumentation. Tales of stage antics so out-of-control that they were banned from several European venues have spread over the years, adding to God Bullies’ mystique among fans of intense live performances. I would liken what I’ve heard to tales of classic Revolting Cocks. The difference between the two acts would be that when RevCo reunited it was musically sound but theatrically lame. God Bullies on the other-hand gave it their all on both fronts. As soon as Selberg left the stage, lead singer Mike Hard was taking it. Looking like Richard Nixon on a bad acid trip; the sweaty, suited-up, front-man launched into his Republican/Preacher persona with a litany of shocking lyrics, offensive statements, and absurd facial expressions. The band wailed away behind him as Hard stole the show with his tent-preacher/pulpit act that made every member of the audience feel as if he was singing directly to them. Bit by bit Hard lost parts of his suit while he leapt down to mingle with the crowd, humped a cross, broke a cross, and saluted the flag. The set was perfectly designed, building in intensity to match Hard’s attitude of “I got older…weirder…meaner”. God Bullies led the crowd on the best sing along of the day with their rousing rendition of “Let’s Go To Hell”. It was a set both hilarious and totally rocking.
Hammerhead: Before Saturday, I have never met another fan of Hammerhead. Personally they are one of my favorite bands with their punishing and serious hard-rock approach. The more I read leading up to the Bash however, the more I discovered that their is a rather large fan-base out there that has been praying for a reunion for years. I have to admit, it was nice to discover others as passionate about this band as I am. As I talked with people during the day at the festival, it became apparent that Hammerhead’s set was one of the most anticipated of the festival. Like myself, others that I met could hardly believe that the reunion was actually happening. The crowd seemed to swell to its largest just before Hammerhead took the stage around eight o’clock. The trio were all business as they ripped through a viscous set of complex and forceful noise-rock. All around me people in the crowd were screaming along with the lyrics. Not in a fun, sing-along way but in a way that signaled a real heart-felt sense of connection to the music. Hammerhead sounded fantastic and if there was any complaint to be had at all about the Bash it is that their set wasn’t longer. In fact, the crowd cheered so loudly after they left the stage that Hammerhead came back on to do an encore (one of only two encores allowed by the tight festival schedule). Hammerhead played with a seriousness and focus that contrasted nicely with the insanity of The Thrown-Ups and God Bullies. Their set really put the whole line-up into perspective and showed-off the diversity of the Am Rep label. My favorite detail of their set was the pissed look on singer/guitarist Paul “Sting-Ray” Sanders’ face as he chucked a borrowed guitar against his monitor amp to finish the encore. Angry man music indeed.
Boss Hog: One of the bands known outside of Am Rep circles, Boss Hog are often dismissed as Jon Spencer’s band between Pussy Galore and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. However, as any good Am Rep fan will tell you, Boss Hog is more Cristina Martinez’s outfit than anybody’s. She bares it all vocally and physically on Boss Hog’s albums with her impassioned delivery style and unbeatable sex appeal. The band behind her deliver a mash-up of blues rock and near-industrial levels of noise. Jon Spencer is definitely a presence with his awesome guitar licks and occasional vocals, but every time he took the mic on Saturday the crowd seemed to be aching for Martinez’ return to it. Martinez bounced around the stage, singing her heart out while melting hearts with her irresistible smile. Boss Hog’s fantastic, high-energy set capped the night with a celebratory feeling that did the term Bash justice.
While Boss Hog tore through their encore, The Thrown-ups’ singer, Fotheringham, creeped onto the stage, mooned the crowd, pulled his shirt up, and began to perversely rub his belly and nipples. Boss Hog wrapped up their final tune, said good night, and left the stage; allowing Fotheringham to linger there rubbing himself sans music for just a few uncomfortable moments longer. It was a perfectly awkward end to an amazing day of music and performance that ranged from the mathematically precise to the politically absurd, from the gut-punch intense to the certifiably insane.
* I had flown in on the red-eye from Atlantic City, where I had witnessed the mighty fury of Iggy & The Stooges the night before.
** I skipped White Drugs and listened to Gay Witch Abortion from afar. As much as I wanted to watch them up close, I had to take a break for food. At that point, I hadn’t eaten more than airline Biscott crackers for about 15 hours.
*** Mudhoney, who I will finally be seeing in concert next weekend at All Tomorrow’s Parties New York!!!