Andrew Jackson Jihad might be the best band Phoenix has produced. And unlike certain local punk bands from the '80s, they remain relevant. Unlike most musicians who move elsewhere to "make it," totally neglecting their hometown later, Sean Bonnette and Ben Gallaty have made every effort to stay involved in the Valley, even when they're stomping around Europe with Frank Turner or taking time off in other cities. That's why when AJJ returns home, it always feels like a reunion of sorts.
AJJ's music will always remind me of my hometown and my many friends who are also fans. So I had to pass the torch. Not too long ago, I introduced my younger brother Garrett to "The Jihad," as we call it. He just turned 16 as well, so for his birthday, we brought him to AJJ's sold out show at Crescent. This review was supposed to focus more on his perspective, but unfortunately, something tragic happened on our way to gig.
A lot of my friends got tickets to this show, so about seven of us were walking down Indian School Road to the light rail when we heard a loud smack. I jumped. At first I thought a tire blew out or a car clipped another vehicle. But it was instead a pedestrian who walked out into traffic.
She was killed instantly. You could tell by the way her body lay under the tire. You could tell by the way other pedestrians, witnesses, responded. You could tell by the way the driver reacted. It was over.
Like a movie, it immediately started to rain. We called 911, but sirens were already heading toward us. A nearby police copter aimed its spotlight over the scene. We stood there stunned. For me and several others in my group, it was the first time we'd ever seen someone die. I've known death, but never right in front of me.
My editor and I both considered not mentioning this incident. It's not entirely relevant to the show and it's a huge bummer. I hope this doesn't demoralize you. Yet, my job as a critic is to report on live music with a critical and therefore subjective eye, and when you witness something like that, it alters your mood.
Because of this, we were late to see Dogbreth open, which was kind of a letdown because I learned they did a really weird, awesome cover of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London." We did catch Hard Girls, however.
Hard Girls (who have no females in their lineup for some reason), played fast and loose punk songs with both the guitarist and bassist trading grungy vocal melodies. That duality is what worked best in their favor. Deacon Batchelor, AJJ's drummer, subbed for Hard Girls and despite only practicing during soundcheck, he played flawlessly.
But honestly, it was hard to get into. I was in some kind of stupor. Hard Girls played two or three songs before I even realized they were on stage. I snapped out of it -- but only momentarily. When the band offered lyrics like "I wanna die slow," my mind was elsewhere.
But back to Garrett. Like me, growing up in North Phoenix didn't lend to many show opportunities. My brother had been to concerts before, but he had really only seen arena rock outfits like Journey, Styx, and Jimmy Buffet. This was his first "real" show, with kickass punk bands that he enjoyed himself, not some group my parents liked. I was beyond excited to share this experience with him and thought his perspective would be interesting.
While he was a little shaken up by the incident, he seemed OK. He told me that he liked Hard Girls' energy and the fact that they "didn't sound like crap." There was almost too much bass to him, which he says the band should be "careful about, as it shouldn't drown out the vocals."
Andrew Jackson Jihad took the stage to unanimous applause, but this show didn't get nearly as rowdy as other AJJ performances I've seen, including their last gig at Crescent. Perhaps this had to do with Bonnette requesting no crowd surfing (according to one person, the "longest crowd surf ever" happened during Dogbreth's set, but Hard Girls didn't get much moshing.)
AJJ jumped into "Temple Grandin," the opening track off their fifth album, Christmas Island. Folks got excited quick. I forgot about things again. But before this show I never realized how many Andrew Jackson Jihad songs involve death. That isn't a criticism, just an observation.
For obvious reasons, I wanted to hear "Little Brother," but Gallaty warned the crowd they wouldn't be playing any old songs the audience wanted to hear. "We don't play like that," he grinned sarcastically as they cut into a very old track, "Unicorn." They followed up with "Kokopelli Face Tattoo," which despite being far newer had everyone singing along. Next, Dylan Cook of Partners in 818 joined AJJ on stage with mandolin for "Bad Bad Things," an old song I definitely didn't expect to hear.
A really drunk guy was (I assume) kicked out, despite Bonnette and Gallaty asking him to behave as security grabbed him. "People II: The Reckoning" was next, and I can't say I've ever agreed more with the line "You live in an unforgiving place."
Bonnette announced they were gonna "keep it country," and then played "Free Bird." Coincidentally, the infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd song always reminds me of a funeral for a friend where the song was played. I guess now the AJJ song will always remind me of this night. Phoenix is the eighth most deadly city for pedestrian deaths. Knowing that is one thing, but witnessing it is another thing entirely. It could be me next time. It could be one of my friends. It could be you. So when Bonnette sang, "I'm free as a bird / I'm free / I'm free as a man who's out wandering the streets looking for shelter," I couldn't relate more.
The rest of the show went off without a hitch. Folks sang along with every "whoa oh oh" and plenty of kids danced their asses off with some slight moshing. "Linda Ronstadt" was incredibly moving, as was Gallaty when he sang "Coffin Dance." "Do, Re and Me" mentioned the Heaven's Gate corpses; "The Michael Jordan of Drunk Driving" played his final game, leading into "Brave As A Noun" ("I could go off the deep end"); and "Best Friend" really sold the whole death theme of the night ("Do the spirits haunt us / by blowing through our hair?")
AJJ said their last song was "Angel of Death," but didn't leave the stage for an encore. Instead they responded to the thunderous applause by inviting everyone from the previous bands onstage for "Big Bird." It was an incredible extended jam -- and it somehow felt like a funeral dirge. It was beautiful.
Garrett was ecstatic. In spite of everything, he had the time of his life. He said he loved it, especially the atmosphere, which was the "nicest mosh pit I've ever seen," (he's seen at least two). But he felt that the band didn't seem to want the audience there, as they "kept telling everyone they were pricks." Even seeing someone die didn't really affect him. He says he was just grateful the music took his mind off death.
As morbid as this review was, it isn't meant to depress anyone. The overarching themes of death might have actually helped everyone cope. If I had just gone home instead, I probably would have dwelled on the whole situation that much more. AJJ gave me some much-needed catharsis.
Furthermore, none of this is about death as much as it's about life. I go to shows to emphasize my existence, to lose myself in some really excellent music, and most of all, to take a moment away from everything and realize how lucky I am to be alive. I could be living in Gaza or Ukraine or Sudan. Or, I could walk out into the street at the wrong moment. But I won't live forever no matter what, and whether it comes from a traffic accident or a macabre folk-punk band, I need reminders to dance on my own coffin. There's no other honest way out.
Last Night: Andrew Jackson Jihad, Hard Girls, Dogbreth at Crescent Ballroom
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The Crowd: Imagine a packed room full of excited kids. So many of friends and friends of the band were there, like one big high school reunion. AJJ is one of the few bands that can pull that off here.
Overheard: "The reason I think Sean [Bonnette] is cute is the same reason I think you're cute: glasses and messy hair."
Personal Bias: No disrespect is meant by any of this. Please be careful when driving or crossing the street.
Did you know? Troy Farah has Twitter. Who cares.