The Dead Milkmen, Philadelphia’s top punk export, stunned a sold-out crowd at U Street Music Hall with the nervy verve of their declarations against mainstream America along with an amazingly acute understanding of their musical niche and a nod to DC hardcore punkers Fugazi.
Rodney Anonymous and crew tore through about 30 3-minute musical selections in a show at U Street Music Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18, to a largely respectful crowd who formed perhaps the most civil mosh pit in history at the front of the stage as the show reached its halfway point. By its halfway point, the Dead Milkmen had dispensed with some of their comparatively polite standards like “Punk Rock Girl” and “Methodist Coloring Book,” which thumb their nose as social acceptance, as well as new song “Fauxhemia,” which rails gently against things people are “supposed” to like, such as NPR. These songs, while rooted firmly in the Dead Milkmen catalog, hit their targets with a bit more of a slap upside the head than a kick in the ass.
The first part of the show culminated in a surprisingly catchy cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars,” demonstrating the underrated synth prowess of the Milkmen and Mr. Anonymous as well as a deep understanding of how jangly guitars, a specialty of second vocalist Joe Jack Talcum, paired with melodic keyboards make for extremely danceable new wave music. Although critics of the Dead Milkmen may dismiss them as one-trick ponies with off-kilter vocals and a ready contempt for conformity, the segue into “Cars” and other synth selections showcased an incredibly smart band that understands the glue that cuts across the interlocking genres of punk and new wave.
After a rambling mid-set discussion with the audience on the merits of dark wave princess Zola Jesus (another smart acknowledgement to musical genre consciousness) and the perils of public bathrooms, the Dead Milkmen truly kicked it up a notch, leaping into politically incorrect numbers favored by their steadfast fans to include “Rightwing Pigeons from Outer Space,” “Stuart,” and “Beach Party Vietnam,” which have a few choice things to say against small-minded people, walking the line, and going to war. These selections positively had the otherwise demur but crowded concert hall dancing and thrashing in place with the mosh pit, again politely, floating one bald punk rocker up before the stage in his attempt at crowd surfing.
I cannot underscore enough how the sound of the show kept from being abrasive despite the scathing lyrics of the Dead Milkmen’s most popular songs. A lot of this has to do with Talcum’s penchant for upbeat guitar riffs that I categorize as “surf punk” — utterly melodic danceable beats you easily may have found on any early recording by The Go-Go’s. Talcum is a surf punk champion and his guitar can make even the most blistering songs sound pleasing and upbeat.
In their encore, the Dead Milkmen pleasantly surprised the crowd with a rendition of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” which was well performed and well received despite Anonymous’ joking appeal that no one should tell the guys in Fugazi about it. The instrumental mix of the Dead Milkmen automatically put them outside of the hardcore punk scene that thrived in New York and DC, but their Fugazi cover highlighted how perfectly comfortable they sitting right in the middle of the hardcore scene, much as their hometown of Philadelphia literally did. Again, it was an intelligent selection as the song fit the Milkmen’s philosophy well and it carries a rolling guitar refrain easily adaptable by the band’s signature sound.
Not content to merely stick with what they do best by poking society in the eye, Anonymous and crew deftly dove into an actual dark wave number by winding into a cover of VNV Nation — a song called “Control” from their latest album Automatic. They added their own jangly spin to the song, making it feel perfectly at home with their other numbers, particularly as they sought to bring the tempo down a little bit again for the end of the show.
Their covers go a long way to suggest that the Dead Milkmen could gather a lot more mass appeal, if they were so interested, perhaps abandoning satirical lyrical hi-jinks and following the path blazed by their brethren in Devo, who also have made a career of satirical punk and new wave but somehow did so with less alienation. But the Milkmen seem pretty happy with themselves, and perhaps rightly so given the appreciation they received from the at least 300-strong capacity that filled U Street Music Hall last weekend.