David Rovics, 10/9/13 Rochester

002David Rovics took the stage at the Flying Squirrel Community Space, in jeans and an ill-fitting t-shirt, looking nothing like a beloved quasi-rock star.  Midway through the first of his two sets that night, he asked for the lights in the room to be turned down, so that the stage lights would illuminate him while the rest of the room sat in semi-darkness and watched him strum his folk ditties on his acoustic guitar.  “Basically, I’m a shit anarchist,” he said.  “I like to be the center of attention.”

That’s right, last week we went to see a folk concert, not our customary musical milieu.  In fact, when I walked in an older guy by the door teased me about my mohawk and my Doc Martens, asked me if I thought I was going to a hardcore show.  Well, of course not, but I like to be ready in case a hardcore show breaks out.

For those of you who don’t know who David Rovics is, please let me explain.  You know those guys with the buttons pinned all over their jackets you hear wailing out tunes at every anti-war rally, the Bob Dylan impersonators who you see strumming their guitars at every Occupy encampment and every anti-fracking demonstration?  David Rovics is basically the king of those guys.  For the last two decades, he’s been travelling the world, playing at protests and for coffee shops full of left wingers, inciting the occasional riot, and amassing an impressive library of original songs.

After the show, he told me that he had over three hundred songs in his catalog, encompassing all of the typical leftist topics, and a few others that seem to be the idiosyncratic interests of Rovics himself.  That night’s set included recently-penned tunes about the government shutdown, ballads about activist movements in other countries, songs covering obscure episodes in history, and a tribute to a Greek activist dog with the courage to stand and fight in the center of a teargas cloud.  Besides all of that, there was at least one song about pirates.

With so many songs about so many different things, there came a point at which they all started to sound more or less the same.  I went home that night with the entire David Rovics persona stuck in my head, wishing I had a guitar to strum as every thought that passed through my brain took on the cadence of an Irish folk tune, all delivered in his folksy nerd voice, like They Might Be Giants doing Pete Seeger.

David had a great, self-deprecating sense of humor and an easygoing attitude that made him  a blast to spend a couple hours with, even if I was in a musky community room filled mostly with respectable, aging leftist strangers, and no booze.  On the way home, Shandi commented that he made politics entertaining and interesting, “unlike most political events.”

For me, the highlights of the evening came when he stopped trying to impress us with the new stuff and just played the hits.  It was a giddy thrill to shout the chorus to “I’m a Better Anarchist than You” or to belt , “Burn it Down,” at the top of my lungs with all of the local insurrectionists.  After the closing refrain of “Pirates of Somalia,” I told Shandi, “I like it when he plays the sing-alongs.  It’s like church.”

And the way I said it, it probably sounded like I was being ironic.  But the truth is I wasn’t, not even a bit.  Especially in times like these, when the world around us seems to be so irretrievably locked in the clutch or ignorant right-wing backlash, I’m always hoping for some kind of church service to break out.  Or like a riot, or a hardcore show.

Weird Ass Humans with Guitars and Harmonicas

Aside

This is an article about a show we went to a back on July 24, 2013 but never posted for reasons that are really not worth going into.  Unfortunately, AK from Black Bandit and the Stickups has, since the time of this interview, left Rochester to go back to college.  The whole city seems lost without him,and I hope he’s still playing music down there in New Jersey.

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The story I’m told, that I’m going to pass along without bothering to verify, is that there is now a massive lake at the North Pole. And there’s more. With my own eyes, I’ve seen evidence of another disturbing portent, Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi combining their talents for a new sitcom on the Fox Network. So, clearly, the world has had it. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse across the land, and since it’s all over, I’m glad I had the opportunity, last Wednesday night, to make it to the Bug Jar for the Rochester Teen Set Outsider two-year anniversary show.

Rochester Teen Set Outsider is a hard-working local zine available in sleazy locations all over the Flour City. It harkens back to an earlier epoch, scarcely imaginable today, when people used to communicate with each other in ink scrawled across sheets of paper, and augment their messages with cut and pasted pictures photocopied in high contrast with crudely suggestive cartoons scribbled on in ball-point pen.

Thanks to my incredibly rewarding job in the dishroom at Wegman’s, I arrived at the show late, and missed the first two acts. Shandi had to watch them herself, a blond shiksa goddess all alone at the edges of the stage, twisting her lithe body provocatively as she pointed her camera. Halfway through the Ian Downey is Famous set, when the singer took off his shirt to raucous applause, She told me, “That’s like the third male nipple I’ve seen tonight.” So I can imagine that the portion of the show I missed involved some seriously memorable display of the masculine chest.Image

Ian Downey is Famous put on an entertaining show. At first, I thought they were going to be a grunge band, because everyone in the group looked like they were over thirty-five. But, for the most part, they eschewed the muddy, plodding sound of your typical Nirvana imitators and played loud, energetic rock with shouted, rapid-fire vocals. After Ian divested himself of his button-down shirt (but kept his tie on), the band pummeled into the appropriately titled, “You Should Be Gayer.” Word up.Image

The dance floor was packed for the night’s closing act, Harmonica Lewinsky. They played an infectious and irresistibly danceable set of surf rockabilly. The crowd pulsed with the intense surge of electric sex and the air fogged with the stink of hot breath and sweat. It was rock and roll, as hot and funky as it was meant to be, the throng of humanity leaving the worries behind to wail out and enjoy themselves before the End of Days overtakes us all.

IMG_20130728_191935 (1)Between sets, I got the chance to do an impromptu interview with Black Bandit and the Stickups, the Rochester underground scene’s most memorable one-man noise-blues phenomenon. AK, otherwise known as Black Bandit, not only agreed to do an interview, an awkward and uncomfortable prospect there on the street corner with hundreds of Mohawks and hooligans clamoring past for hotdogs, but he lent me his pocket notebook and a pen to jot notes with since I came to the show woefully unprepared.

To ease into the interview process, I asked Black Bandit what his influences were. I knew that I had heard him mention Robert Johnson before, so I started there. He shrugged off the comparisons to classic blues artists like Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, saying that those were the artists that people expect him, as a black man playing blues-influenced music, to name,

“So fuck that shit,” he said. “I’m really into Cockney Rejects, Man is the Bastard. People will hate me, but Morningstar. I see a lot of parallels between blues and metal.”

Picking his brain for other important influences, he said with a grin, “I don’t know, I’m not Wikipedia. But I’m into Southern sludge metal. It has that tension. Tension and release.”

Tension seems to be an important ingredient in the music of Black Bandit and the Stickups.

IMG_6012 (1024x683)Regrettably, I missed his set that night, but from what Shandi told me, he drew a crowd in with his deep, mournful singing. She said that the crowd stood in silence, completely fixated as AK sat with his guitar behind his kick-drum-suitcase under a single, dim spotlight.

I asked where that emotional intensity comes from, and he said, “I’m not comfortable expressing (myself), so I save it all up. I get this weird pain behind my eye and the bridge of my nose. Like, I have a pain in the back of my head and I’m dizzy with rage. Sometimes, it’s an overpowering feeling, like how little my fellow human beings care for my other human’s humanity.”

I asked how much that sense of injustice informs his songwriting, and he told me, “Not as much as I’d like. As a black dude in America I feel like there’s a lot of expectation for me to write that kind of stuff, but I don’t know. I’m not the 2013 Robert Johnson. You’re not going to pigeonhole me.”

AK describes the blues as, “Weird ass humans being weird ass humans with a guitar or

harmonica.” And if the world really is ending because of what we’ve managed to do with industry and thermodynamics, I suppose that’s the best legacy we can leave behind for alien explorers to puzzle over when they stumble upon the deserted ruins of our society. Our weirdness, our emotional baggage. The way we packed into sweaty music halls and shoved each other around, the zines that we taped together and Xeroxed while all the people more important than us were pushing the gas pedal through the floor and driving us to extinction. This is how we didn’t survive, but we made the best of it. This is how we were humans.