One book. Two MCs. Three jokes about the book’s title. Four and a half hours long. 13 seminal bands of the past covered by 14 groups of the present. That was the scene last night at the Bowery Ballroom, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Michael Azerrad’s must-read book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, hosted by comedians Eugene Mirman and Janeane Garofalo, both of whom stayed out of the way for the majority of the evening. Over a dozen current indie bands were on the bill, performing songs from the likes of Sonic Youth and the Replacements and the Minutemen and Husker Du and so many of mine, your, our favorite artists of all-time.
Nat Baldwin, David Longstreth, and Brian McOmber of the Dirty Projectors began the show sounding exactly like Black Flag, particularly during “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” rather than the Dirty Projectors-playing-Black Flag album, Rise Above (it was probably the first, and last time, anyone moshed during a song by the Dirty Projectors); Delicate Steve, joined first by Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington and, later, by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, had the privilege of performing the night’s namesake song by the Minutemen, “History Lesson—Pt. II,” containing the immortal line, “Our band could be your life/Real names be proof/Me and Mike Watt played for years/Punk rock changed our life”; and Citay, a band I otherwise like, played one of the evening’s weaker sets, because, as it turns out, Mission of Burma doesn’t translate to psychedelic pop-rock smoothly.
Ted Leo, and only Ted Leo, threw his body around to select choices from the all-too-brief Minor Threat discography, such as “Salad Days,” with an old-fashioned tape recorder providing the pre-taped music; Grooms’ faithful Hüsker Dü set was dedicated both to singer Travis Johnson’s mother for buying him Our Band (“Diane”) and to “Bob, Grant, and Greg” (“Something I Learned Today”); Titus Andronicus, in one of the better sets of the night, got the crowd going with early Replacements songs, like “Kids Don’t Follow,” helped by a crowd-surfing Craig Finn; while tUnE-yArDs and Callers played Sonic Youth in separate, very different sets, with the former adding looped vocals and a percussion-heavy sound to “Burning Spear” and the latter slowing down Thurston & Co.’s music, much to its detriment.
Then Dan Deacon took stage, and played either the night’s best set or its absolute worst. He and his band were asked to perform Butthole Surfers songs but rather than playing it safe, they, instead, went insane, with their unique style of electro-pop. There was a Theremin and a synthesizer and screeches and sirens and Woody Harrelson turned into the Wolfman on a projector and a guy next to us had his nose broken during the set and someone else in the crowd picked up one of the heavy amps from the stage and was ready to throw it as far as he could before security stopped him.
Next up, St. Vincent had the unenviable task of following Deacon, but not only was Wolfman Woody quickly forgotten, Annie Erin Clark and her band (including the Projectors’ Nat Baldwin) played maybe the best set of the night. They made Big Black their own, adding a nervous, eerie quality not originally found in the songs, with Clark, in particular, looking possessed while slamming and jabbing at her guitar. Wye Oak also added their own dusty shoegaze sound to the songs of Dinosaur Jr., with Jenn Wasner’s husky vocals replacing J. Mascis’ drawl and Andy Stark, always a wonder to listen to, playing drums with one hand and keyboards with the other.
The final three acts—Buke and Gass, White Hills, and Yellow Ostrich performing Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, respectively—all had unique interpretations of the source material; sometimes this was good (Buke and Gass and their self-made instruments adding a folksy quality to Ian MacKaye’s second best band), sometimes it was bad (White Hills turning the grunge legends sound into a hard rock, Alice Cooper-esque wail), and sometimes it was surprisingly great (Yellow Ostrich, who oddly ended the show, stretching “Indian Summer” as far as it can go, before the song crashed gorgeously all around them).
Our Band’s author, Azerrad, took the stage to give the performers a breather, telling the crowd that the show isn’t about the book, “it was about the bands,” with Deacon providing anecdotal evidence, explaining how Our Band essentially is the reason why he’s still a musician today and didn’t give it up a decade ago.
In the spirit of things, Azerrad took off his jacket and crowd surfed, while a dream lineup consisting of members from Wye Oak, the Dirty Projectors, Titus Andronicus, and many of the other bands from the evening played a three-song encore: “Negative Creep,” “Sliver” and set closer, “Lithium.” One by one, more and more people who had previously performed, including Merrill Garbus and Arone Dyer, jumped into the crowd, with everyone shouting out, “I like it, I’m not gonna crack.”
Last night was a nice full circle moment; to paraphrase Azzerad, the reason the Dirty Projectors and Grooms and Buke and Glass and the others were picked to play the show was because, like the bands covered in his book, they’re making music exactly the way they want to.
Photo of Craig Finn and Patrick Stickles by Nadia Chaudhury (Check back in later for many, many more.)