To butcher an oft-coined phrase, writing about punk is like slam-dancing about astrophysics; the latter remains a far more compelling way to spend your weekend. Particularly since the word "punk" means nothing anymore, or, worse yet, seems to mean everything. Lord help us, it's a "vibe," an "aesthetic" now. You know it when you see it. Like obscenity. How appropriate.
Consider Lookout! Records, famed Berkeley, California, punk label par excellence, which just celebrated its 15th year of existence with a two-day label showcase featuring precisely one "punk" band, at least by the lightning-fast, rock-hard, snot-rocketing, scaling-the-shithole-walls definition. The indie behemoth's genesis may lie in gleeful woolly mammoth-primitive punk bands such as Plaid Retina and Corrupted Morals -- those still enamored of those late-'80s glory days can delight in the recent reissue comp Punk Seven Inch CD, which crams six early Lookout! releases onto one nostalgia-oozing disc.
But the rest of us simply marvel at the label's ongoing mutation. Acts like the Yeastie Girlz once kept Lookout! afloat, but far poppier experiments -- Green Day historically, the Donnas currently -- gave our heroes international fame and financial solvency. Evolve or die, folks. The Lookout! of 15 years ago would hardly recognize and might possibly despise the modern incarnation. Thank goodness. Were that not the case, Lookout! would suck abominably hard.
It doesn't. The anniversary concert spectacular -- which took place in San Francisco in July -- wasn't transcendent or perfect or mind-blowing, but it did showcase a label perfectly comfortable with its stylistic disarray.
First, the punk band.
The Enemies kicked off that two-day show with bare-bones, propulsive punk that favored velocity over melody, intensity over subtlety. They burped into their microphones and hawked remarkably large loogies on cue. Furthermore, front man Mike Pelino has mastered Billie Joe Armstrong's iconic front man swagger: Spread your legs, contort your mouth into a fiercely insouciant O, and pump your right fist mechanically back and forth across the strings of your screaming electric guitar. It's the made-for-MTV pose that transformed Green Day into pop culture titans; Pelino just steals it back, toughens it up, sucks out the pop sheen, and spits it back in your face. The result is fun without being goofy, catchy without being memorable.
Alas, the closest thing Lookout! has to a Green Day disciple act -- the Queers -- was scheduled to play the first day but abruptly canceled. Too bad. The band's severe brattiness (choruses of "Danny Vapid ain't a faggot," "See you later, fuckface," and "You're a homo," etc.) is probably hiiii-larious live. But there was a more refined cavalcade of clever party punk: the Smugglers. A 15-year-old institution themselves, Vancouver's finest cannonballed onstage with a relentless, mom-friendly joy and an unfortunately super-secret weapon: pop-punk that makes you dance. A rare and glorious beast indeed. It's a wonder we'd all survived up until now without a tune called "Cans of Love" to bop along to. Front man Grant Lawrence flopped around the stage so violently he didn't have enough energy left to clap on beat. His adoring front-and-center audience minions handled that for him.
But the crowd really flipped for Dr. Frank, geeky-ass bedroom-rock impresario behind the Mr. T Experience, which performed a show in Tempe this past August 9. He serves as the official Lookout! singer-songwriter quasi-genius, penning pun-overloaded rock operas to ex-, future, and never-will-be girlfriends. Sample titles: "She Turned Out to Be Crazy," "Bitter Homes and Gardens" and "I'm in Love With What's-Her-Name." The fact that he rarely sings on key only enhances his nerd appeal. The first few rows Saturday night pistoned wildly as Frank unloaded his bedroom ennui, but he shined the brightest during a brief solo acoustic set -- sure, it isolated and magnified his warbly voice, but the intimacy also made him funnier and more vulnerable, particularly on the kiss-off ode "Now That You Are Gone":
I shifted gears.
I faced my fears.
I cried some tears.
I did a lot of heroin.
Frank introduced three of his first four songs with his trademark line: "This is a song about a girl." He ain't kidding. Love him, or you might turn into him.
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The second day crammed four bands into the same space and time frame, showcasing just how far-flung the label's sound has become. Communiqué, born from the ashes of retired Lookout! band American Steel, cemented its place as the label's brightest minor-league prospect -- its own Brandon Webb, if you will -- with a New Wave predilection that avoids robotic shtick or rampant nostalgia. Plenty of groovy bass lines and Moog riffs that won't make you want to punch someone, for once. Baltimore's Oranges Band followed that up with tricky three-guitar mayhem, sampling time signatures like Jelly Belly flavors. It ain't prog, but it sure as hell ain't punk, either. The Oranges weave a thoughtful, intricate web, but Sunday's set had little rhythm (including epic guitar-tuning jags) and wound up as something more appreciated than enjoyed.
And then came the Pattern, garage-rockin' hipster dudes led by Lookout! co-owner Christopher Applegren, who onstage embodies a profoundly odd hybrid of front man, sexpot, groupie, and crazed mime. He strutted around in a too-tight zip-up sweater, repeatedly grabbing his ass and flirting with his bandmates as they pounded out boozy guitar jams seemingly designed to elate Strokes fans and British rock critics. The riffs only melt faster the tighter you cling to them, and Applegren's lyrics aren't quite clever enough to technically make sense -- "When you said call me/Did you mean the phone?" -- but he did his best to make up the difference by falling off the drum riser, sliding across the front of the stage, and inadvertently falling headfirst into the crowd, where he remained, vertically inverted, for half a verse or so. Impressive. Hilarious. Because if Andy Dick fronted the Rolling Stones, you know you'd buy a ticket.
And finally, last and greatest, Ted Leo/Pharmacists, current Lookout! critical darlings (Yeah? Well, fuck you, too.) for damn good reason. The quartet swiped and perfected all its label brethren's niftiest tricks -- Dr. Frank's shy wit, Communiqué's Ric Ocasek weaponry, the Pattern's out-of-control enthusiasm -- but Leo injected pure, unparalleled star power. Witness his manic, insatiable rant on "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," stripping the sound down to bass and drums just so he could repeatedly bang a tambourine against the side of his head before chucking it into the audience and shouting the chorus: "You didn't think they could hate ya now, did ya?"
It was the showcase's first and only truly command performance, "punk" in vibe but unbound by any sonic stigma. He'll sell maybe eight billion fewer records than Green Day, but as long as Lookout! embraces that, the world will continue to embrace Lookout!. You'll know it when you see it, and better yet, you'll actually like it.