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Punk Is Dad

Two days and 12 killer songs at the Wrecking Ball, a place where guitars still reign and niche music festivals still matter

Rob Harvilla
Rob Harvilla

“I motherfuckin’ turned 50 last week, so suck it!” Thus crowed Jennifer Finch, bassist for indomitable grunge queens L7, immediately after turning a half-decent cartwheel onstage at Atlanta’s Wrecking Ball festival Saturday night. Millions of ’90s bands now living will never die; hundreds of throwback-minded 2010s bands are born every day.

We had gathered in the stifling heat and merciful evening cool to celebrate them all, or at least way too many of ’em.

In March, The New York Times made the delightfully grouchy announcement that it would no longer cover Coachella, Bonnaroo, and the like, as such big-whoop general-interest music fests had grown “homogenized, smoothed out and mainstreamed,” with little variation and regional character left to celebrate. Instead, Times writers would seek out “smaller festivals with purpose” that offered “a particular, site-specific event with its own peculiar chemistry.”

Wrecking Ball is one of those. Punk rock, in all its infinite and maddening variations — hostile to profoundly soothing, corroded to disconcertingly shiny, uncompromising to thoroughly compromised — has never been deader, and never been more alive. At 40 years old now, it remains the hostile underground phenomenon to which most mainstream music still blatantly aspires, in attitude if not in sound. It’s way too old to be cool, and yet way too cool to not feel a little young, still. Defiantly childlike elder-statesman mall heroes Blink-182 had a no. 1 album just last month, selling hundreds of thousands of albums to kids young enough to be the 40-something band members’ illegitimate children; emo, the grandiose and uber-sensitive ’90s-and-beyond sub-subgenre that dare not speak its name, has in the past few years inspired an Emo Revival that also dare not speak its name, an unwanted umbrella that nonetheless now shelters many of the best young rock bands in America.

As always, it’d be pure folly to attempt to define punk, and pure suicide to dump all these diametrically opposed permutations — grouchy forebearers and snotty millennials, headbanging noise-polluters and unabashed aspiring pop stars — in the same place, lest these people all try to kill each other while the sheer cosmic dissonance nearly killed you. So of course Wrecking Ball tries to do so, and of course the results are phenomenal and exhausting. Enjoying its second year in Atlanta, the two-day, earplug-incinerating blowout welcomes punk, emo, hardcore, and underground-rock stars both vintage and nascent, ascendant and (gently) descendant. The purpose: Prove that guitars still matter, as do the sad boys and fiercely boyish men — a lot of women, too, but way more dudes — who violently and/or delicately strum them. Split among five stages across this past Saturday and Sunday, this year’s model featured Thursday, Quicksand, Deerhunter, Dinosaur Jr., Diet Cig, Rainer Maria, American Football, American Nightmare, the Promise Ring, and many other bands whose names I was slightly embarrassed to read off to my wife.

This is all brought to you by the Masquerade, a former excelsior mill repurposed into a decades-old Atlanta music institution with two stacked indoor stages named Heaven and Hell and spaced a creaky staircase apart; a smaller, usually indoor space called Purgatory was relocated for the occasion to a tiny makeshift outdoor tent perched in the building’s scant shadow. From next door, where two giant outdoor festival stages stared each other down from opposite ends of the five-year-old Historic Fourth Ward Park, the Masquerade’s scraggly, soot-colored exterior mingled awkwardly with the shiny, new condos that otherwise surrounded us. A silent herd of bulldozers and other construction equipment loomed nearby, patiently waiting for us to scram so they could build more shiny new stuff. Turns out that this festival is named “Wrecking Ball” for a very specific reason, and the chemistry offered by this specific site will soon be way less peculiar.

More on that later, but anyway, this whole thing was great. The 12 best songs I heard were as follows.

DAY ONE

Microwave, “Lighterless”

Saturday, in the brutal early afternoon sunlight, you could watch Nashville band Diarrhea Planet throw a thinking man’s four-guitarist frat party, or scabrous electro-punk lifers Milemarker vacillate between an eerie chill and an outcast-welcoming warmth, or actress-turned–gutter-glam-queen Juliette Lewis, she of Juliette and the Licks, rock an Evel Knievel jumpsuit and announce to a bewildered crowd that “I’m gonna give to you what you’re gonna give to me, you understand me?” But you were probably better off indoors, amid a giant industrial fan or two.

Microwave are local heroes whose 2014 album Stovall is a beer-soaked and candy-coated delight; this is the first single off their imminent Much Love, and it exquisitely replicates Weezer at their hardest and crabbiest — circa Maladroit, say, caught between caring way too much and not caring at all. (Notably, the frontman for a much louder and more uncouth band called Drug Church would disparage Weezer from the Hell stage below our feet about half an hour later.) Frontman Nathan Hardy evidently dislocated his shoulder during the last song of their set and went straight to the hospital, making him way more hardcore than most of the actual hardcore bands who dominated Heaven for most of the rest of the weekend.

The Menzingers, “Lookers”

These fellas illustrate the longstanding principle that punk rock that gets too wistful, populist, and sing-along-minded ends up sounding exactly like Bruce Springsteen, and that there are worse fates — there is no better fate, in fact, should you happen to hail from Scranton, Pennsylvania. They took the Heaven stage to the strains of Bill Pullman’s rousing monologue from Independence Day; group chants included “I will fuck this up, I fucking know it” and “I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore.” They gave to us what we gave to them, which was to say freakishly ecstatic adoration. Any stage divers were brusquely herded offstage ASAP, but the bouncers would be easing up on all that soon enough.

Daddy Issues, “Ugly When I Cry”

Touché Amoré are a screamy hardcore band with a reputation for viciously transcendent live shows; nonetheless, I have a very specific internal radar that starts blaring whenever any band, anywhere in the world, starts covering Don Henley, which is how I found myself wandering away from the vicious transcendance and out toward the Purgatory stage, where a delightfully scuzzy Nashville band called Daddy Issues was covering “The Boys of Summer” with utmost sincerity. The band’s song “Ugly When I Cry” was better, though: “You might think I’m sweet / But I have evil tendencies.” Sample stage banter: “This song’s for everyone who dropped out.” Further sample lyrics: “Boring boy / I’m sick of your boring face.” The bassist wore a shirt with the logo “No Dancing,” and danced a little.

Rob Harvilla
Rob Harvilla

It was all a fantastically delicate combination of the amused and the totally unamused. Over in the park, on one of the main stages, the Welsh arena-rock band the Joy Formidable had roughly 10,000 times the amp power, pop sensibility, and overall grandiosity as Daddy Issues, but you could sense the connection anyway — a sort of weaponized irritation. Much of Joy Formidable lead singer Ritzy Bryan’s own stage banter was hard to discern (Welsh accents, y’know), but everyone got the message when she and her bandmates ended the set by trashing their gear, a gesture so corny it passed as profound amid dozens of bands so studied in their uncorniness.

The Bouncing Souls, “True Believers”

You probably can’t legally have a punk festival in this country without inviting these New Jersey lifers, given that they have at least a dozen songs this naked in its yearning and this perfect in its execution. As ebullient mosh-pit populism, it just went on and on and on, and still didn’t feel long enough. “Gimme a reason to care and sing along forever.” “It seems so far away.” “I want to start again.” “Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!” Every line of every song a mantra, or, more to the point, a tattoo.

“I love this festival right now,” lead singer Greg Attonito announced, nodding up at a naked, ruthless sun unobscured, at the moment, by any helpful clouds. “I’ll love it even more two hours from now.” He went on to salute the Masquerade for its many years of hosting Bouncing Souls gigs, but he called it “the Marquee” by accident. Though in his defense, there are probably half a dozen clubs spread across America called the Marquee that have also hosted several dozen Bouncing Souls gigs apiece, and are also in the process of being shut down or forcibly relocated.

Deerhunter, “Desire Lines”

Yes, the bitter inside joke of this year’s Wrecking Ball is that the Masquerade itself, after a 27-year run hosting everyone from Bad Brains to the Ramones to Fugazi to Nirvana, is moving to a new location in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood this year. (“Seen a lot of cool bands here,” noted Justice Tripp, frontman for Baltimore hardcore band Trapped Under Ice, on Sunday afternoon. “Seen a lot of people get their ass beat.”) The physical building — parts of which date to the late-19th century — won’t be torn down, but by this time next year, Heaven and Hell and Purgatory alike will likely be carved up into fancy restaurants and boutiques. The gleaming condos dominated the view outside; at least in the late afternoon, they helped block out the sun a little bit. There was a “Gentrification in Action” vibe to the whole weekend; it was unnerving to notice, and further unnerving to realize that you were, in your own small way, an active part of it.

“Neighborhoods change, man,” noted Bradford Cox, volatile frontman for Atlanta art-rock phenomenon Deerhunter. “Shit changes. It’s an endless draining cesspool. That’s just American life. “Hello, Apple Store! Hello, Google Fiber!” He went on to make some rather lewd remarks about hometown heroes Coca-Cola. Deerhunter gigs are noted for their anarchic unease; “Desire Lines,” a deceptively simple guitar drone that gathers beauty and force as it goes, made profane resignation sound almost triumphant.

Drive Like Jehu, “Luau”

There were plenty of fine options as the evening deepened: Gorilla Biscuits if you wanted classic, raucous hardcore (“Hold Your Ground” was awesome). Kathleen Hanna’s peerlessly cheerful antagonism onstage with the Julie Ruin, whacking a cowbell and lamenting the death of her Tide pen and chanting inequality inequality inequality inequality and barking out grating, mesmerizing nursery rhymes for furious grownups. I’m pretty sure L7 brought out Juliette Lewis for their Natural Born Killers soundtrack jam “Shitlist,” but by then I was lying flat on my back in the grass, half-conscious, staring up at the stars, and trying to psyche myself up for the Piebald/Knapsack afterparty.

But San Diego noise-rockers Drive Like Jehu were mandatory. Watch enough people play guitar for long enough and the very physical motion seems absurd, all those splayed fingers and twitching wrists, like how if you repeat a word to yourself enough times it sounds like nonsense. But these guys restored your faith in it, the awesome violence and the holiness, the catharsis of extreme repetition. John Reis’s gear looked like it had all burned down in a fire, the amp-head tubes exposed and defiant, like condemned buildings slated for condo-hungry demolition. If you weren’t wearing earplugs it might’ve killed you. If it didn’t nearly didn’t kill you, you weren’t really living.

Halftime: 2016 Wrecking Ball T-Shirt-Slogan Hall of Fame

“In Dog Years I’m Gay”

“Defend Girls Not Pop Punk”

“I’m a God Damn Piece of Work”

“Not Your Mom, Not Your Milk”

[Picture of Cam’ron]

“Grunge Is Dead”

“Punk Is Dad” [oof]

“Do No Harm, But Take No Shit”

“Still Straightedge, Still Strong”

“Don’t Shred on Me”

[Picture of Daria]

“You Can Only Trust Yourself and the First Six Black Sabbath Albums”

“Gender Is a Social Construct”

“Gender Is Over (If You Want It)”

“Y’all Motherfuckers Need Jesus”

Black Cats [Black Flag logo, but with cats]

“Never Going Back to Diesel”

“I Feel Like Pablo”

“Dad Bod”

“Smash the Patriarchy” [worn by male bassist]

“Jazzercise”

DAY TWO

Bully, “Six”

This did not exactly ease us into things, but maybe it’s best to just jump right into the empty pool. Alicia Bognanno, howling lead singer for Nashville grunge revivalists Bully, is only in her mid-20s, but she still sounds like a long lost member of L7 on this song about breaking her sister’s arm as a 6-year-old. (“And of course it wasn’t intentional / But it still makes me sentimental.”) The band also covered PJ Harvey’s “Snake,” just to really drive the point home. Everything new is old again.

Rainer Maria, “Tinfoil”

Sunday was officially Emo Reunion Day, and it doesn’t get much more emo than Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer screaming “God dammit!” at each other at the startling onset of this poetic-crosstalk–as-warfare 1997 jam. Back then, Kaia was still known as Kyle; their unsettlingly stormy dynamic is still intact, intimate enough to draw blood but anthemic enough to scan as top-shelf all-inclusive festival rock on an atom-bomb-bright afternoon as you cower in the feeble shade offered by a giant inflatable PBR can. My brother burst into tears the second this set began and had a pretty gnarly sunscreen-in-the-eyes situation for the next 40 minutes, and still claimed this as the weekend’s overall highlight. No argument.

The Promise Ring, “Red and Blue Jeans”

The ur-emo band, probably, though they’d probably deny it. (Though then again, who wouldn’t?) The Promise Ring’s stridently weird and insidiously catchy loner anthems still have enormous emotional resonance, in part because their lyrics have grown less inscrutable with time: “I don’t go to college anymore” hits way harder 19 years later. Resplendent in his Rush Week Casual outfit of ballcap, Bengals T-shirt, and cargo shorts, frontman Davey von Bohlen further tweaked the lyrics to “Jersey Shore”: “When July is gone / I’ll be 24 … 41! … 55! … 67!” His singing got noticeably yelpier and less precise the older the songs were, perhaps in deference to his younger, far less polished self. But the band’s finest hour (or finest 25 seconds, at least) will forever be the wordless, thundering guitar squall that keeps jolting this song out of whatever vaguely erotic reverie it’s in, or plunging it deeper into that reverie still.

Joyce Manor, “Heart Tattoo”

It was tempting to spend all day Sunday bathing in the nostalgic pathos of the (first) Clinton Administration: Civ, whose splendid fluke MTV hit “Can’t Wait One Minute More” was functionally a Beavis & Butthead-era remake of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” held court up in Heaven, a crowd of cohorts and well-wishers gathered right onstage like it was a Wu-Tang Clan concert or something. But Wrecking Ball hit the hardest when it reminded you that pop-punk and emo are in a better place now than at any time since the Alleged Glory Days, and a song this rousing and bombastic from a SoCal band this young can convince you that even the Alleged Glory Days might someday pale by comparison.

Foxing, “Rory”

If you came to Wrecking Ball to look backward, American Football offered the gentlest sort of catharsis imaginable: The Illinois band’s 1999 self-titled debut/farewell letter is noodly and graceful and autumnal to an absurd degree, with hazy math-rock nostalgia serving as both the end and the means. Per “Honestly?”:

Honestly I can’t remember

All my teenage feelings

And the meanings

They seem too

See-through

To be true

All the who’s are there

But the why’s are unclear

The transition from your high school–era bedroom alone in the dead of night to an ersatz-historical city park full of sweaty strangers in the still-sweltering late afternoon tended to blunt the impact, though, which may have been a mercy, given how devastating that record’s impact can be. For the current equivalent, as conceived by a young St. Louis cohort of chamber-pop enthusiasts also fond of trumpet solos and dumbstruck lyrical exorcisms, here’s a dark room full of equally sweaty people all screaming, “So whyyyyyyy don’t you love me back?” at maximum volume and with maximum enthusiasm.

This was way more fun than operatic self-loathing really ought to be.

Thursday, “Cross Out the Eyes”

Once again, there were plenty of adventures to choose from as Sunday unwound: Quicksand have one truly great song but plenty of condo-antagonizing charisma, and Dinosaur Jr. boss J Mascis noodled jovially away, reeling off the 10 best guitar solos of the festival one after the other, finally truly free now to sound like the Deadhead (or the Doobie Brother) he’d always kinda looked like. But New Jersey’s own magnificently thudding souls, Thursday, were the true headliner, back after a five-year hiatus with the cuddliest scream-alongs imaginable, linking Warped Tour adolescent angst to the wincing forced-adulthood gravitas that made the Wrecking Ball burn the brightest and cut the deepest. I enjoyed watching frontman Geoff Rickly swing his microphone around and around and around, but I also worried that he was going to grievously injure someone — possibly himself. That’s a very “Punk Is Dad” reaction, maybe, but caring enough that you risk looking uncool is, when you think about it, the punkest move of all.

An earlier version of this story misidentified an L7 song. It is called “Shitlist,” not “Shitfit.”