PUNK ROCK TEARS THE ROOF OFF THE CONGRESS THEATER
Six dollars and your best thrift store gear got you through the door to Chicago’s Congress Theater on Sunday night to watch Fugazi, Shellac, and The Ex unleash guitar tones seemingly designed to tear the marble wainscoting from the theater’s elegant, aging walls. In the finale of two nights’ worth of vintage Hardcore Punk, all three bands proved that being an iconoclast doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be funky, rock wild, or have the best-sounding guitars of all time.
The Congress isn’t your average punk rock venue. Over its almost 70 year existence, the old movie palace has been the site of almost every kind of event, excluding demolition derbies and rodeos. Still going strong in 2001, its domed roof and gilded Classical Revival-meets-Italian Renaissance trappings looked Sunday upon a legion of Indie Rockers, who descended on one of the Summer’s biggest shows. By this point in their storied career, Washington DC’s Fugazi might as well be the elder statesmen of Hardcore Punk, having among their ranks innovators of not only the early 80s movement that propelled that genre, but also the brains behind bands that years later have come to influence “Emo”: Embrace and Rites of Spring. Together with Brendan Canty (drums) and Joe Lally (bass), guitarists/vocalists Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto have honed Fugazi’s propulsive post-core groove, continually pushing and challenging their music, as well as their own emotional boundaries. Their uncompromising stage show is legendary – as Canty and Lally build a watertight vibe, Picciotto flails and pikes, while Mackaye’s bald head reveals veins barely containing his rage. Though their set Sunday night would find them in a more relaxed mood, it was still enough to drive the faint of heart from stage front.
But before Fugazi could lie waste to the room, it was The Ex’s chance to crack some tile. The Dutch quintet’s swirling, chain-driven approach to agit-prop rock was downright scary. Sounding at times like a funkier Sonic Youth fronting the Velvet Underground’s rhythm section, the band hurled out more freaky melodies and beats than a 50s Crypt-Rock revival night. With vocalist GW Sok swaying robotically at the mic, chanting his liberal socialist tirades, two guitarists and a bassist plodded and hopped about the stage like the zombies of Re-Animator, all along emitting skittering, distorted guitar lines that complimented pounding, incessant percussion. 4/4 time was meaningless to The Ex; instead, they became the musical equivalent of a Hydra, placing beats or squalls of distortion at points normally intended for rest. Part improvisation, part manic dedication to noise, and entirely engaging, The Ex definitely delighted the ghosts holding court in the Congress Theater’s arching red dome.
Don’t hate him because he hates the human voice. Hate Steve Albini because his guitars will always sound better than yours. Watching Albini and cohorts Todd Trainer (drums) and bassist Bob Weston assemble their gear, it became clear that Shellac’s set would be a study in jarring sound economics. Trainer’s simple 4-piece kit crouched between two stainless steel boxes that looked like an industrial design student’s attempt to build the perfect Martian amplifier. And after the obligatory Weston-led question-and-answer session, Shellac embarked on a sardonic, screed-filled sonic journey that probably shook loose more of the Congress’ ancient plaster than Fat Man and Littleboy combined. Whatever you think of Albini or his band’s uncompromising music, his impossibly treble-y skronk has to make you shake your head in admiration. (But I agree with PJ Harvey: He still mussed up Rid of Me…)
After Shellac’s remorse-less set, It was nice to see Ian Mackaye smile. As he and Fugazi took the stage, he was concerned more with how many fans had been at both night’s shows than delivering one of his infamous anti-moshing tirades. Joshing aside, it was time to rock, as the band launched into “Do You Like Me” from 1995’s Red Medicine. Because of their staunchly underground career path, Fugazi’s ability to straight up kick out the jams might be underestimated. But here were four musicians locking into a tight mix of upbeat hardcore that seemed ready to bust out of its cage at any moment. While Mackaye has lost none of the anger that filled his voice so long ago in Minor Threat, he has learned to use it as a foil to Picciotto’s more protean vocals. Mackaye’s rebel yell is still a one-trick pony. But in the arsenal of Fugazi, it’s a real howitzer.
While there were no shortage of anthems (“Promises;” “Lockdown”), the band took time to showcase their more atmospheric side, which has been evolving over their last few records (as well as on the soundtrack to Instrument, Jem Cohen’s film about Fugazi). At times the group almost sounded like Tortoise as they built and dismantled the instrumental interludes from Medicine and 1998’s End Hits. This is not a stretch. Fugazi has always been a groove-based band, even during their most angry or ear-splitting moments. And there’s a good chance Guy Picciotto would make a great R & B singer, with his pliant vocal chords and shimmying stage moves, suggesting Prince with no spine. Fugazi may indeed be moving in a more studied, less punishing direction with their forthcoming material. But the great thing about Sunday’s set was the band’s ability to move between experimentation (including giving the ever-silent Joe Lally the mic for a few numbers) and sheer, sonic power. And they didn’t even need Martian amplifiers to do it.