Young guns can’t measure up to veteran punk acts

By Ethan Stanislawski

Back in the heyday of alternative rock, Nirvana described its music as “the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” That particular approach—jerky, catchy melodies backed by an aggressive, macho attitude—has been the model of alternative rock for the past 20-odd years. Last Friday at the House of Blues, four bands performed a show that could be seen as a case study of this model. The set alternated younger, crappier bands, with older, outstanding bands. The Effigies and Naked Raygun, two bands that hail from Chicago’s punk scene, highlighted an excellent, if inconsistent, concert.

The night kicked off with Shot Baker, a band that approached punk with the same mind-numbingly derivative riffs and stop-start tempos that have been dragging down the genre for the better part of the decade. Most of John Krohn’s guitar-playing sounded old 20 years ago (Minor Threat used the same “duh duh-duh-duh duh” rhythm in 1981’s “Seeing Red”), and singer Tony Kovacs, trying to look like Henry Rollins, sounded more like a Green Day knockoff. When they threw a copy of their album into the audience, one had to wonder if that would be the only album they’d put in the crowd’s hands that night.

The disappointment didn’t last too long, however, as the Effigies’ subsequent performance was the highlight of the night. The Effigies, who predate even Steve Albini’s rise to Chicago punk rock punditry, played a set of some of their best songs, including “Body Bag,” “Haunted Town,” and “Mob Clash.” Vocalist John Kezdy hasn’t lost any power despite his graying and balding head, and bassist Paul Zamost was the best instrumentalist of the night.

While Shot Baker approached punk no differently than any band of the past quarter century, the Effigies built their jerky rhythms on minor scale climbing, leaving you to fear the oncoming chorus. Combine that with Misfits-inspired horror show lyrics, and you have all the makings of an excellent, creative punk band. The Effigies’ performance was professional yet enthusiastic, despite the band members being old enough to be fathers to most of the audience. (The audience, may I add, had an unusually high tattoo-to-arm ratio.)

The Bollweevils, a longtime opener for Naked Raygun, performed strangely after the much-better Effigies. While on the whole the Bollweevils were just as derivative as Shot Baker, they hid it a little better with blazingly fast tempos and manic stage antics that were, if nothing else, fun to watch. Lead singer Daryl jumped all over the stage and was even bold enough to attempt a stage dive. To be fair, some of their songs were not all that bad, but most were a bit too similar-sounding.

The main problem, however, was that they performed nearly twice as long as they should have. The Bollweevils performed a total of 20 songs and it’s hard to imagine a band with barely 1,000 MySpace fans deserving to play that many. In fact, that’s over a quarter of the Bollweevils’ entire catalog—a catalog that, surely enough, prominently features multiple covers of songs by the Effigies and Naked Raygun. Most of the audience got restless less than halfway into their set.

Perhaps their set was so long because Naked Raygun’s needed to be shorter. I heard rumors in the crowd that singer Jeff Pezzati is facing a financially crippling divorce, along with an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s. That may explain Pezzati’s embittered performance at Riot Fest. After a few months, however, Raygun was back in full force, and they played with as much passion and chops as they’ve ever had.

Raygun’s strengths have always been deceptive melodies, machismo lyrics, a solid and eccentric rhythm section, and Pezzati’s impressive vocal range. The band lacked none of these essential traits, even if their song selection could have been better. Steve Albini once described watching later Naked Raygun as being like “watching a beautiful girl go fat.” While the later material definitely pleased the crowd, it would have been nice to see more songs from Basement Screams, Throb Throb, and especially Jettison. That didn’t stop them from making the most of their hour on stage, but it did prevent them from eclipsing the Effigies.

As much as I try to avoid rock nostalgia, it’s hard to imagine the latest orchestral indie pop band performing a more satisfying show than this set, despite the prehistoric age of the night’s best bands. Instead of thriving off a sense of superiority and collective effervescence, the Effigies and Naked Raygun succeeded by pushing their audience with antagonistic but excellent songs, willing the audience to enjoy themselves. The all-ages show featured as many 11-year-olds as aging hipsters, but nearly everyone came out satisfied. It’s admirable that some bands can still let their music, not their image, speak for themselves.