Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Power of Independent Trucking: The Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Block Party (text and photos by Defensive Listening)

Summer ended last week and along with it, the U.S. music festival season. So what did I miss? A chance to see Kanye West and AFI at Bumbershoot in Seattle? Hmm...Kanye and AFI are also playing at Street Scene '06 in San Diego. Did I miss paying  $80 to see Blood Brothers and Yellowcard share the same stage? Oh wait, Yellowcard is playing Street Scene as well, along with Tapes 'n Tapes.  But wait a minute, Tapes 'n Tapes is also playing some Coney Island Fest in New York, which is free thanks to festival sponsor Budweiser.  You know, the king of Beers?

To get some perspective on the whole summer festival scene, I flipped through the Summer '06 issue of Filter magazine and took note of all the cross pollinated sponsorship in an attempt to figure out why the same fifteen acts were playing at just about every major festival in the U.S. this year. Filter even went so far as to congratulate themselves for the little party they threw for that most ghastly of festivals, Coachella, earlier this year. It ended with this little beauty of a paragraph:

"Extra special thanks to the folks at Honda in helping make the event happen and capturing silly shots of attendees in the new FIT ride. Shout-Outs to Puma and Napster for the goodie bags and arts and crafts; word up to ASCAP, Urban Outfitters, Indie 103.1 and, as well as Heineken, Red Bull and Glaceau for keeping everyone entertained and adequately

How 'bout big ups to Glaxo Smith Kline for making Wellbutrin and keeping everyone emotionally numb enough to endure three days of overrated bands? Props to all my motherfuckers at Lockheed Martin for keeping the US safe enough to spend $400 on something as trivial as a two day VIP pass to Street Scene. I was so amazed at the above corporate shout outs that I felt like I had made the whole thing up.

Recently, I've started to feel that so called underground music is being completely overtaken by indie culture's increasing flirtation with mainstream garbage, co-dependent publicists, and various corporate interests. In order to improve my mental well being, I decided on a whim to go to the Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Block Party in Chicago, hoping to find some light at the end of the tunnel. After three days and dozens of bands, I not only regained faith in underground culture, but in all of mankind as well.

First of all, the Touch and Go Birthday party featured more than 25 different acts over three days for a measly thirty five dollars, which comes out to a little more than a dollar per band. And considering that Touch and Go is arguably (and I will argue with you) the greatest independent record label of all time, the small price was more than worth it. Traveling all the way to Chicago was the catch, but it certainly didn't stop me. After all, if I had wanted to see something in my own state, the only option was Austin City Limits, which would have required paying $115 for the privilege of melting in a huge pile of baby boomers sweating it out to Van Morrison.

For too long now I've needed to wipe such repulsive situations out of my system. I was desperate to not think about the silliness and infighting of the local music scene, or the way big business swoops in and chokes everyone with advertising as they circle like buzzards around demographics data and pie charts on what's hip and who's for sale. This three day celebration was the perfect way to do that. To my amazement, there was not a single banner advertising anything behind the bands as they played. The stages weren't called Washington Mutual or At&t or anything else that has absolutely nothing to do with music. One stage was called Touch. The other, Go. You'd almost think Touch and Go was run by fools if you consider the cash they burned by not having sponsored stages. Touch and Go, however, is not run by fools. It is run by a man named Corey Rusk, and if I hadn't known that before the festivities, I surely would have known afterwards, considering that pretty much every band I saw unabashedly praised him onstage at one point or another.

Mr. Rusk's original business model for Touch and Go was a simple handshake agreement providing that everything would be split down the middle after the label recouped its initial expenses. This extremely fair relationship between artist and label was an anomaly at the time and in a lot of ways, it still is. Touch and Go has somehow remained vital and relevant these past 25 years through countless changes in the underground, the mainstream, and that hazy twilight where the two meet. They have been successful without compromising, pandering, yielding, or any of the other things that lesser labels spend much of their time rationalizing their way through.

The acts themselves were the living embodiment of all the things Touch and Go has stood for all these years. The festival started on a Friday afternoon with the precision rock of Shipping News, and ended with a Sunday night performance by the maraca wielding Calexico. Neither of these bookends, as enjoyable as they can be, really captured the intensity that lurked in the very center of this block party. Saturday was probably the single most satisfying day I've ever spent at a concert, so forgive me if that's where I'll tend to focus.

I can't imagine a better lineup even if you broke the label-only structure of the event. Bands started playing at noon and the New Year blew everyone away with a flawless lunchtime set. As much as I like The New Year, I couldn't believe the nearly dozen bands that would follow them, each somehow outdoing the last. Uzeda, a band of middle aged Italians, followed The New Year and threw down the gauntlet so hard that I thought the earth would crack and blood would rain from the sky. Uzeda was not just incredible for the way they built up and tore apart each sound they roared at the audience, but also for how they were noticeably older than a lot of bands that would later perform. Age seemed to be a theme on Saturday as many veteran and reunited groups completely stole the show from the younger bands playing on Friday and Sunday. That's saying a lot considering the number of beloved young bands in attendance (Enon, !!!, Ted Leo, and the Black Heart Procession for example), but they were really overshadowed by the chaotic firestorm of noise that left the crowd completely spent on Saturday.

Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen of Silkworm played a single song as a poignant respite between all the dissonant heavyweights on Saturday. Silkworm unfortunately met an untimely end when drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed by a young woman who intentionally struck his car from behind in a failed suicide attempt. Two friends and fellow musicians also died in the accident. Silkworm, as the world knew them, would never play again. Needless to say the remaining members of Silkworm performing a final song from their catalogue was moving for many people in the audience. Many in the crowd wept, and singer Andy Cohen visibly broke down when he left the stage.

Tim and Andy were followed by The Ex, and a raging joy returned to the audience at the beginning of their set. The Ex represent the opposite of everything wrong with rock music. They defy all odds, stereotypes, pigeonholes, rules, sonic boundaries, international boundaries, and every possible categorization. They are probably the only band that performed who were older than the label itself. The Ex truly believe in what they do with a purity that has always been rare but seems especially lacking in contemporary rock. Their debut album, "Disturbing Domestic Peace", put Gang of Four's "Entertainment" to shame and whatever album they release next will completely shred anything around its release date. What sets The Ex apart is that they have never broken up, never reunited. They have always just been there, living a parallel existence to Touch and Go. They literally bleed for their music, playing with such force that both guitars are caked with blood by the end of the set. They have toured Ethiopia. When I think about that fact alone, I laugh at all the local bands that catfight about who charges too much for drinks at what bar and how lame this or that booking person is for not giving their band a chance. Give me a break. There's an entire world beyond this dense little scene and people like The Ex didn't wait for it to come to them. They went out and did it. They didn't wait for someone to hand it to them. They fucking took it. Their clattering, chugging, improvised, exacting yet explosive music is some of the most significant art made in two centuries. I'm not telling you this to be a snob, but if you haven't already, please discover the truth of this band. By the time The Ex were done playing, it was still only 3:40 in the afternoon.

Following The Ex was a one-two-three punch of Killdozer, The Didjits, and Negative Approach. All three bands put on impressive sets for not having played in so long and each set was a love letter to Touch and Go for keeping their records in print all these years. Touch and Go famously keeps all their records in print which is not only a feat but also puts the label at odds with people like Sub Pop who have milked every limited edition collectible tactic they can, making them something of an annoying Ebay genre unto themselves. The crowd was getting noticeably more riled up at this point but I saw only one person actually get kicked out. Negative Approach in particular were very brutal and convincing, reminding me why hardcore blew my mind at age fourteen. Catching their full set caused me to miss my chance to find a good view during Scratch Acid, but I surprisingly enjoyed Negative Approach more. I really wished I had caught Scratch Acid play their hometown of Austin the weekend before. David Yow has not lost any credibility as the world's greatest front man in his absence from music. I got flashbacks of a 90's Jesus Lizard show where I hid in the balcony at Trees because the pit was so out of control. Scratch Acid was the only band I saw that played an encore and Texas should be proud that their oft copied sludge noise is our state's gift to the world. The only thing that could top a Scratch Acid performance and encore was the improbable reunion of Big Black.

How does a band with a drum machine and four songs own an entire three day music event? Despite singer/guitarist Steve Albini's contentions, Big Black lived up to the hype of a band that formed to outweigh Heavy Metal and out-hard Hardcore. Their guitar sound was easily the most shocking noise I have ever heard come out of an instrument, period. The sound was akin to bombs dropping and bouncing a few times before they blow mid-air and unleash a torrent of treble, bent nails and gunpowder into every open eye, ear, pore and orifice in the audience. I will never forget the feeling of screaming along with 7,000 people, "I can kill a cow/Fast as any other fucker can!". Talk about camaraderie amongst strangers! There was a very healthy and friendly attitude in general during the weekend and people from all over the world knew they were experiencing something that was actually special, rather than the prepackaged "special" that comes at the ridiculous price that greedy organizers of other three day music events were asking for this summer. I saw Big Black open for Shellac and I can't even believe I just typed that sentence. It was a privilege.

Shellac could have and probably should have closed the festival. I was thrilled that they played Dallas early in the summer and I was still just as thrilled to see them in Chicago. Much like The Ex, I wish more bands would aspire to their lack of convention. They don't tour to "promote the album", they tour because they want to. They don't send out promo copies, they let the critics do some legwork and not just sit around expecting handouts. In other words, if they want to review the album they have to go out and find it (or in Stonedranger's case, download it). It's almost an unthinkable concept these days: A band that isn't begging you to like them or pay attention to them. I wish there were more. The world would certainly be more interesting. Shellac ended their triumphant set with drummer Todd Trainer dragging two girls onstage, handing them drumsticks and letting them hit cymbals with the rest of the band. It was a beautiful moment and a contrastingly gentle way to end such an overwhelming day.

Acts as diverse and respected as Seam, Pinback, and Coco Rosie played on Sunday but it almost seemed like a gloomy afterthought. I enjoyed myself anyways. The Monorchid was the last aggressive yelp of the reunited bands, and the festival came to a close with little fanfare after Calexico. I'm still recovering from that weekend... in a good way. Sometimes the cynical silliness of the local scene causes me to forget that original, transcendent, and challenging music even exists in the world. I'm just as guilty of the narrow mindset that I mentioned before because I let the pettiness and DFW tunnel vision cloud my own thinking. I can't stress enough how refreshing it was to have all that chipped away and realize that we can all be better. Better Bands. Better label owners. Better music fans. I was truly in awe of what Touch and Go had accomplished and what we could all possibly accomplish if we tried even a fraction as hard as Corey Rusk and all of those bands. If nothing else, I would like to thank Touch and Go for helping me detox the baggage of the local music scene out of my system, even for just a weekend. We're all very lucky this record label still exists. To quote Todd Trainer, "Thanks for enriching all of our lives."

Jason Noble of The Shipping News

Matt Kadane of The New Year

Andy Cohen of Silkworm


GW Sok of The Ex

Steve Albini of Big Black/Shellac


Anonymous Anonymous said...

they should have called it, "dude, we're getting the band back together" fest.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous scott said...

Thanks DL.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous LB said...

i think i know who DL is and this article confirms it ... but i will keep it on the DL, heh. interesting stuff.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The New Year" = B O R I N G

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, those pictures make me feel old.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fucking excellent review. I'm very proud of you. I'm also surprised that Don Caballero didn't play this.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous mb said...

That Saturday was probably the greatest day of rock and roll I've ever witnessed. It was a life-affirming event in the truest sense.

Every one of the reunions sounded as vital and fresh as the still-extant bands, and I was grinning like mule eating garlic while Scratch Acid slayed everyone.

Seeing Corey Rusk either backstage or down front for every single band, with a smile on his face the entire time, was probably the most inspiring thing. This guy is in his mid-forties, has put out ~400 records over the past 25 years, and basically invented the punk rock/inde rock record label model, and he's still totally enthralled about music. After seeing that, no amount of Black Tie Dynasty and scene politicking can bum me out.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Zine-O-Phonic said...

I really enjoyed this review.

I've only been in this town for a year, and only in this scene for a couple months. So I haven't been dragged down by the baggage of the scene yet. But there sure is a lot of bitching and whining going on.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and we're damn proud of it!

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if there were more bands that didn't send out press copies of their cds, there wouldn't be anymore music journalism, and we'd all be happier.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cliff notes..

12:41 PM  
Blogger stonedranger said...

I love the fact that some of the people on here can't seem to read anything longer than two paragraphs.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to gouge their eyes out.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this story should be posted nationally. good job lucky mother fucker.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how their are 13 positive comments and stonedranger has a preprepared knee jerk reaction when some one complains....but seriously, some one tell me why I need to care about this. There has to be a good reason.

1:52 PM  
Blogger stonedranger said...

wasn't trying to be a (knee)jerk. Was really just making a joke more than anything else. I too think this is a great piece.

1:55 PM  
Blogger jonofdeath said...

Man I wish I could have gone to this. Touch and Go really does have the best line up of strong, relevant, and timeless artists.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Zak said...

Way to make us jealous. Good piece.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

move on...... next?!?

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

There's some stuff up on from this. I've got Scratch Acid, Big Black, and Shellac, but there's a little more out there. I'd kill to hear Uzeda but its not there. Scratch Acid totally pwn3d Austin (which I saw because I couldn't go to this).

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ahhh... rehashing of shit that went on 20yrs ago.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



5:22 PM  
Blogger JS said...

Thanks for this review DL, very good stuff.

5:30 PM  
Anonymous mc said...

Yes DL we are proud of you. We will allow you to have a big screaming Albini-gasm, because, well, you bring up some great fucking points. I am so with you on the Ex. Rock!!!

7:56 PM  
Anonymous mc said...

By the way I do not (publicly) claim to know who Defensive Listening is, but one of my own bandmates seriously accused me of being Defensive Listening. Shit, now I wish I was Defensive Listening so I could have seen this shit .....

7:58 PM  
Blogger Defensive Listening said...

I would hate to be accused of being me. Thanks for the compliments.

8:11 PM  
Anonymous mb said...

DL, just re-read your paragraph about the Ex, and I couldn't agree more. They are the best (and most inspiring) band I've ever seen in my life.

mc, you blew it, buddy!

8:14 PM  
Anonymous mc said...

Barny, is all a carefully planned ploy to make the WSJR world believe that I am not in fact Defensive Listening ...

9:31 PM  
Anonymous defensive listening said...

... but they are so fucking wrong!

9:31 PM  
Anonymous some bozo said...

damn, it was supposed to link

9:32 PM  
Anonymous defensive_listening said...

like this!

9:32 PM  
Anonymous john said...

if you would like to see more pictures there's 168 of them in my yahoo photos that i took. just email me off list and i will send them to you.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still just trying to wrap my head around the fact that my email from the JR crew had a dudes name on it. I name that I KNOW has to be fake. A name that i KNOW could not be somebody's name who is involved. Because why would that happen? Why would you put your NAME on a yahoo email account? MIND GAMES, YOU BASTARDS! EFFIN WITH MY BRAIN! Even if it is a fake name, I dare not speak it out loud. If it turns out to be true, I want to be the guy that never said nothing no how. BUT... SERIOUSLY? Why do you make me spend time in my day going... "Nah. No way. Would that? No couldn't... I mean... Nah... Meh? Naaaaaah."

11:09 AM  
Blogger stonedranger said...

all in good fun my friend.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I googled it in hopes that it was a pop culture ref. to something, but nothing came up. Still, it was pretty, "WTF?!?"... A fun part of the WSJR trip...

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

those bands are old

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:23, kevin channing was a character on the soap opera "falcon crest" created by the same person as "dallas"

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

based on the new info u should rename this blog, nerd

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how come no jesus lizard i wonder?

11:13 AM  
Anonymous chris said...

"how come no jesus lizard i wonder? " From what I take from it is, old drummer isn't interested, and nobody else is interested unless it is with the old drummer.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous john said...

touch and go asked Yow for jesus lizard and Yow said it wasn't possible because of unmentionable other problems and Yow suggested Scratch Acid and there you go.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to be pedantic (read: a fucking geek) but I couldn't let it go: Falcon Crest was created by Earl Hamner Jr., the main nigga behind the Depression-era trigga of The Waltons. Dallas was created by David Jacobs, who dropped Knots Landing. This is what happens when you spend Friday nights during the Reagan Era watching TV with Mom instead of learning about Killdozer. Good show, DL.

10:08 PM  
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