Sometimes, a live music moment catches you off guard and hits you so hard that you are overcome with the feels- a band or a song that summons a moment in time, a relationship, a victory or a defeat- you are instantly transported to that time and place with a chord, or a riff or a melody. As a reliable concert crier, I typically have a pretty good idea when that moment is coming. Before the show starts, before I get to the venue and even before tickets go on sale, as soon as a show is announced, I know. But The Misfits as the marquee headliners of Riot Fest 2016 and up to this past Sunday when Jawbreaker were the belles of the ball known as Riot Fest 2017, it redefined the criteria for the eligibility of what makes those moments and what don’t and redefined how I reconciled my musical identity- yeah, Jawbreaker were that good.
I was 14 In 1990 when Jawbreaker’s first album, Unfun was released. It was the same year the *greatest speed metal album of all time was unleashed and for all intents and purposes, changed my life forever.
*note- album, not band
One faithful summer night visiting my sister in college at SDSU for the weekend while my parents were going through a dramatic and at times abusive divorce, my sister’s boyfriend, who was in a punk band that played a gig at an apartment complex my first night in town, put on the recently released Megadeth album called Rust in Peace on cassette tape at the after party.
After 6 minutes and 35 seconds, song one of the album, “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” ended and the raucous party of maybe 30 people stood dead silent, with only a sort of shell shocked look on their faces- some from complete awe and curiosity about what type of masterful fuckery could possibly come next on the album and others hoping that this wasn’t what the vibe of the party was going to be.
I was in the former demographic. I already had a casual relationship to skate thrash starting in 1987 when an album called Join The Army came out but back to 1990- it was also the year of Lights, Camera, Revolution, Seasons in the Abyss and the time I dropped acid and took a train back down to the San Diego Sports Arena to witness the Clash of the Titans tour.
I learned a lot about myself on that night in San Diego that rippled through my life about who I thought I WANTED to be at the tender age of 14. I wanted to destroy my feelings, not nurture them. I wanted to hear songs from bands about corrupt government and institutions, I wanted to hear songs about wizards and Satan and when I needed something more cerebral, 1990 was also the year Against The Grain and Repeater came out. The angrier the better…
… and then there was “Emo.”
The entire music industry was scaled and predicated on classifying and labeling music to bolster sales with terms like “Emo”, when “Pop Punk” was perfectly sufficient enough label and MUCH less annoying, (but only slightly less so). Another example of this- not one “Grunge” band from Seattle sounded anything like the other…
Not. A. One.
Yet Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were bands that were placed under the same umbrella term. I mean, if there were MAYBE one common thread amongst “Grunge” bands from Seattle it was Buzz Osborne and (the)Melvins.
Typically, I’m not super militant about what music I will or will not listen to, whether it ultimately resonates with me or not. I have never had a guilty pleasure in music no matter how hardcore I thought I was- even in my “Seek and Destroy” years I was very open minded to all music- as long as it sounded original. Why I liked something or didn’t had nothing to do with fronting on a punk or thrasher image I was trying to portray.
The genre’s I felt adamant about generally hating most of the bands that were in them were 80’s Glam Rock and Pop Punk so, back full circle, I’m not going to front like I was some huge Jawbreaker fan while they were happening. I would go so far as to say that I had a complete aversion to that sound, the ascension of Green Day, the scalability of Blink 182 and the bleakness of expression in music that followed in the post 9/11 Noughties. (with the exception of …And You Will Know Us By Our Trail of Dead)
Truth is that even with my claims of open mindedness to all music, I never gave Jawbreaker a proper chance- even though it was clear that their pop art imagery and penchant for catchy album and song names, at a time before the unspoken pop punk pre-requisite of unnecessarily long and complicated band names departed from the simplicity of one, hard hitting word, so to speak (two words if you count the word “the” in a bandname).
Now, anyone who knows me, knows there are fewer pet peeves I have that are bigger than name dropping or being the guy who knows a guy, who knows a guy, but explaining in that way is essential to my history with Jawbreaker, so I apologize in advance. Because without having met my friend Abby, I would have nothing substantial to write about the Jawbreaker reunion.
Abby is Adam and Kembra Phahler’s brother but unlike Jawbreaker, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black is what made me say “No fucking way!” when Abby and I started to get to know each other 15 years ago for the first time. I fucking LOVED VHOKB.
So this review is written from a somewhat biased perspective but again, anyone who knows me knows I’ll tell anyone the truth about whether I like their band or not without hesitation and that started WAYYY before music journalism first twinkled in my eye in 2000.
So with the backstory out of the way, flash to Sunday at Riot Fest 2017. I did grow an affinity for Jawbreaker in the 14 years Abby and I have been friends- friends who have witnessed each other get married and become fathers multiple times over. Lyrically, sonically and the depth of their songs are not common. Plus, he and my wife have always had a deep connection musically to both Jawbreaker AND Jets to Brazil. The truth is, big brother Adam or not, Abby TRULY loves the band Jawbreaker and would love them even if there were ZERO personal connection.
Now that brings us up to speed to Sunday, September 17th 2017 at Riot Fest in Chicago.
Abby and his wife Sarah flew in the previous night but I was busy Buzzcocking at the Cobra Lounge and fielding emergency calls from drunk, phone losing friends stranded at Douglas Park. It was the earliest I had gotten to the park in the three days of the festival so that I could catch two young bands that I love, Downtown Boys and Culture Abuse.
The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black played the Heather Owens stage directly after Culture Abuse and I wandered back stage when they finished their set and found a couch and lit a cigarette and gave my feet the early day rest they didn’t get the first two days of the festival.
Out comes Kembra Pfahler in her standard, yet surprisingly not bare breasted VHOKB styling , go go boots, elaborately styled, trademark faux beehive horror wig with every inch of skin from head to areola painted red and accompanied by a similarly uniformed dancer in blue. I didn’t make her aware of my presence at that time since it was about 5 minutes to set time.
I’m going to save the glory of the VHOKB review for the main Riot Fest recap but let’s just say it was one of my favorite sets of the festival and a naked Kembra Pfahler at whatever age she is now is just as believable and horrifically sexy shimmying, prancing and poetically preaching as she must’ve been in the dope, vomit and piss days of a pre-gentrified Lower East Side and East Village in her early 20’s- patrolling the streets of Alphabet City at a time before gentrification transformed it into a family friendly neighborhood where people jogged and walked their dogs.
It was after this set that the family converged together, 123…
Two generations were represented, with the matriarch and patriarch thousands of miles away, unfortunately. Adam’s daughters whom I hadn’t seen since before puberty, some of their friends, some of Kembra’s friends and then I met up with Abby and Sarah backstage just a few minutes later.
I could tell you that the excitement from this point of view was still almost as exciting for me as the build up to seeing the original lineup of The Misfits last year. The Misfits are a “top 3” type of band for me but that excitement was based on fantasy and people placed on pedestals who don’t deserve to be up there at an elevated status for a grown ass man like me (*cough cough Glenn Danzig*). In 25 years I had never seen Glenn Danzig play a bad show, including the Danzig Legacy tour which was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life (yup, cried at that one). But The Misfits performance at Riot Fest Chicago in 2016 left me feeling empty inside- like being betrayed or finding out you weren’t going to make rent this month- they were awful.
In all honesty, my excitement about Jawbreaker had little to do with the music I’ve heard on record and more to do with my day to day life and my excitement for friends. I wouldn’t be singing along to any songs and I wouldn’t feel the excitement you get when the first few bars of that song is played but as some of you that read Janky Smooth on regular basis already know, the REAL trial for the all (self) important Danny-B-ometer band test is the live show. If you can’t pull off what’s on the album live then I don’t care how good your album is… you aint shit and the best bands sound better live than they do in the studio.
In that regard and with my less militant stance on punk rock and my overwhelming and prevailing need to “call em like I see em”, this is about as unbiased of a review as I can possibly write. Friends or no friends, I would have no qualms about telling Adam or Abby or Kembra if I thought the performance of the band fell flat.
Jawbreaker absolutely CRUSHED it live.
The band was tight, REAL tight. Seeing the faces in the crowd, seeing the faces in the wings of the Riot Stage of both Adam’s family and other musicians that played the fest that weekend, seeing one lonely tear roll down the cheek of a stranger when Jawbreaker started playing “Accident Prone” gave me that familiar feeling I didn’t think would be possible without a lifelong, intimate connection to their music that is typically required for me to tap into those feelings I tried to destroy for so long and that come to the surface in these moments.
Adam Pfahler’s daughters seemed suddenly awestruck and I could see them re-evaluating what they know about their dad in their eyes, borderline balling because their whole lives they have listened to their dad talk about a time before they were alive as most parents do, they watched their dad hope beyond hope and probably become somewhat bitter when the other two members of Jawbreaker couldn’t get “it” together to do what he has always wanted to do- which is to resume playing music in a band he KNEW was iconic to so many anonymous people he’d never meet and just drop the drama already.
But the drama is a part of Jawbreaker lore and the tension in the ranks contributes to their art and let’s face it, if they had reformed 10 years ago, they probably wouldn’t be one of the most anticipated and probably one of the most well paid festival acts of the decade, the latter of which is pure speculation on my part.
It was an interesting behind the scenes look at the biggest marquee bookings on the competitive festival circuit and two years in a row, Riot Fest has stolen the thunder from Hurricane Coachella (recently downgraded to a tropical, post pop depression) and the punks from Punk Rock Bowling. The Stern brothers are so punk that their one stage festival refuses to compromise their distaste for Emo, even if it allows them to grow big enough for multiple stages that would draw a crowd and a ticket price that could compete for bands like the Misfits and yes, they would’ve booked Jawbreaker in an INSTANT.
I’ve seen this story many times before just not to this magnitude. The reformation and resurgence of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Sleep have propelled those bands to heights they had never looked down from in their prime songwriting years. That phenomenon is directly related to the internet and the fact that kids of every age will always want to collect things- things like rare vinyl.
It would be difficult for Jawbreaker to be bigger than they were after 24 Hour Revenge Therapy came out. But The Misfits just sold out The Forum in L.A. for a New Years Eve show in which they charged around $400 for a floor ticket. I see the same being possible for Jawbreaker IF they take it slow on what shows they play, post Riot Fest reunion.
I have no inside information on future plans and I wouldn’t write it here without permission even if I did. I have no doubt that Jawbreaker will find a middle ground somewhere in the range between the Misfits and decent human beings. Between playing the Riot Festival and not playing again until New Years, so that the laws of supply and demand allow them to choose whether they will gouge and fuck their fans- because ain’t no gutter punks gonna be inside the Forum in Los Angeles on New Years Eve- but I bet a Kardashian or someone of the same ilk will be.
I’m fairly positive that lead vocalist, guitarist and potential cult leader Blake Schwarzenbach, and bassist Chris Bauermeister enjoyed watching the transformation of their infamous history unfold in lore- even though that story ended prematurely, to being one of the most anticipated and talked about bands in the world since Riot Fest announced them in April of this year. And through these decades of inactivity, I DO know that Adam Pfahler hoped beyond hope, actively lobbied the other members, re-issued records and probably prayed to some sort of god that this day would come and now, here it is- And THAT, surrounded by his family and friends, standing 30 feet from him on the Riot Stage in Chicago, watching the joy in his face and the familiar tears of joy of everyone from the regular folks being crammed up against the rail during their set to the jaded rockstars watching Jawbreaker perform for the first time in decades from the wings- it was watching these people have those emotional moments that made me choke back my tears.
When I talk about weeping or balling at concerts, there is a bit of hyperbole happening in my choice of words. Saying I “cried like a baby” or even in my Black Sabbath review from the last time they played the Forum, with the words “Weeping Manboy” in the title is of course, an exaggeration.
Weeping, balling, crying like a baby and other such phrases and terms are just words I use to relay the way music can sometimes affect a sensitive guy like me. A boy who was taught to push those feelings deep down long ago in the name of some twisted ideal of manhood and exchanged those base and pure emotions for a raging temper that helped me survive being completely unsupervised starting in the year of our lord, 1990, at the age of 14 when Unfun was released.
I’ve been trying to undo that survival impulse for decades now but one of the only ways I was able to access those feelings was through a deep connection to the arts- movies, music etc. and what I learned on Sunday is that I can also access them in an empathic reflex to others going through the same thing.
How was Jawbreaker’s performance at Riot Fest 2017? I actually might be the wrong person to ask, given my casual relationship to the music but generally speaking, I do know a strong performance when I see one and if I was to compare those casual feelings to the type of militancy I have about the Misfits, I take the gratitude and humility of Jawbreaker every time. I might feel differently if the Misfits sounded halfway decent last year- but they didn’t. Give me the stoke I saw in Jawbreaker on Sunday all day, errryday and I don’t even have to think about it twice. One thing I know for sure- Jawbreaker is one of those bands that people build the foundations of their core beliefs around. Lyrically prodigious and musically delicious and innovative, I realized quite some time ago now that Jawbreaker, like Nirvana, Guns N Roses, Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age are one of the bands you might list in your Craig;s List ad looking for a singer that is influenced by the “right kind” of music.
Congratulations to Jawbreaker and their fans and of course, their families. Taking this plunge will undoubtedly transform their lives forever, for better or worse but usually a little bit of both.
Life, man, life. What a trip.
Words by: Danny Baraz
Photos by: D’Andre Ford & Danny B