FEATURE: The Blood Brothers, Live in Brooklyn – 10.5.14
by Chad Jewett
There’s something intangibly wonderful about the improvised nature of punk scenes in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Contending with the strictures of gentrification and the sky-rocketed prices of college-adjacent real estate, you can spend a gap year or two living in one of these towns and find yourself hearing about venues only because a band you love is playing there; the next year, the space will be gone, and some new theater or basement or bar will spring up in a different neighborhood. This was my first time seeing a show at the unique and pretty special Warsaw, a club and performance space in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, the club mainly consisting of a large, box-like music hall with neo-classical white-and-gold sculpted ceilings and a broad stage, flanked by a small bar and a room devoted to merch. The space’s open-ness and whimsical (if accidental) similarity to the church halls and school gyms that made punk DIY possible nicely suited the return of Seattle post-hardcore quintet The Blood Brothers, a band who I’ve only ever seen in those sorts of fly-by-night, rented-out spots.
That very real feeling of nostalgia — of folks almost exclusively in their late 20s and early 30s reliving pre-curfew punk shows in youth rec centers – was bolstered by the very specific enthusiasm the audience had for the return of The Blood Brothers. I regularly overheard people in the crowd marveling at the very fact that the night was happening at all, deeply happy that they were about to see a band whose reunion seemed a lot more likely than, say, Mineral (whose Boston audience seemed a bit more muted in their enthusiasm). There was an infectious elation in the crowd that eventually served to underline a similar form of audacious glee in The Blood Brothers’ music that is perhaps easy to miss beneath the layers of satire, bile, and caustic critique that powered albums like Young Machetes. The Blood Brothers make unsettling music, but it bespeaks an underappreciated subtlety in their songwriting that the band simultaneously makes weirdly ecstatic music. So many of their best songs are self-fueling, cycling wooly overwhelm into furious motion.
The band’s set was preceded by thirty minutes from Brooklyn quintet Violent Bullshit, whose ranks include members of post-hardcore greats Orchid, Panthers, and Les Savy Fav. More muscular and diligently “punk” than those groups, there was nevertheless a certain sharpness to the band’s brief, crisp songs – compact bursts that seem perpetually poised on that pivot from Minor Threat to Fugazi (that both guitarists played Gibson SGs, an archetypal reminder of D.C. emo underlined this), workman-like punk songs abstracted by dissonant guitars and playful structures.
The Blood Brothers’ set was a revelation. Beginning with a fog of ambient thrum, during which a banner of the album cover from 2006’s Young Machetes was revealed, the five-piece took the stage to overwhelming applause before leaping into the twin hurricanes of “Guitarmy” and “Trash Flavored Trash”, the band’s most indelible masterpieces of feral neon punk. The room simply burst into motion as the opening noise clutter of “Guitarmy” began. What remained striking throughout was the band’s stamina and the way the group’s internal dynamics seem to remain unchanged, guitarist Cody Votolato’s eager, bouncing stage presence (Votolato seemed especially overjoyed to once again be wrangling the barbed, minimalist guitar that largely defines The Blood Brothers’ aesthetic) was anchored cross-stage by bassist Morgan Henderson’s serene patchwork of bass, synthesizer, and sculpted noise. Singers Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney ably handled their daunting tangle of screams, vamps, coos, and spoken word interludes, certain shouts and rasps lasting long past recorded versions, as if both singers were striving to give something extra, or trying to push one another as far as their specific forms of athleticism could go. For every brave dive Whitney would take into the audience, Blilie would hold his perfect tenor scream for entire punishing bars, the duo’s dueling chemistry seemingly no worse for its half-decade absence.
The band’s setlist was more or less perfect, a knowing and intuitive collection of hits from the manic trilogy of Burn Piano Island Burn, Crimes, and Young Machetes. Live, one is struck by just how much range The Blood Brothers had managed to eke out of their initial aesthetic of splintered hardcore as the set swung between the reckless, thrashy abandon of “Beautiful Horses” to the humid, ghoulish groove of “1, 2, 3, 4 Guitars”. The night’s highlight (as in “the stuff that was even a little bit more perfect than the rest”) came with the band’s encore, pairing the churning, Fugazi-esque “Set Fire To The Face On Fire” (which audience members frequently tried to prompt by singing out the song’s indelible opening: “Fire fire fire!”) and the scronky, Nick-Cave-reminiscent vamp “Feed Me To The Forest,” a relative live rarity for The Blood Brothers that nevertheless translated wonderfully as Henderson and Votolato sank their teeth into the song’s thick, blocky slashes. As much as one could stand back and watch the joy of an audience losing their damn minds to “Ambulance vs. Ambulance”, the real epiphany of seeing The Blood Brothers, back from a seven year absence, came in hearing those more subtle, conceptually dense songs let thrillingly loose. As beautiful as “Feed Me To The Forest” is on record (and I would argue it is the band’s finest three minutes), it’s live iteration was an incredibly powerful mix of free-range noise and laser-sculpted punk precision. It’s hard to tell precisely what The Blood Brothers have in mind for this reunion other than perhaps a timely anniversary for their magnum opus, Crimes, but one hopes for more. The band’s place in punk music is singular and astonishing, just like their performance in Brooklyn last night.