Superchunk, Rocket From The Crypt, The Bouncing Souls, Yo La Tengo and more rock Atlantic City
Sonic Youth is my favorite band, and I live in New Jersey, so I was the prime demo for the inaugural Frantic City festival in Atlantic City on September 25th, and I bit hard.
The lineup was a 30-to-40-something indie-punker’s dream; even the youngbloods like Control Top and Car Seat Headrest are more rooted in my musty generational ideals than those of the TikTokers who discovered Pavement via “Harness Your Hopes.” Get off my fucking lawn.
Unfortunately, two of the acts I’d never seen — the Raveonettes, whose 2009 In and Out of Control I thought was a minor masterpiece, and would-be climax Car Seat Headrest, whom I reluctantly came to embrace as excellent road trip music, even with an aces live album of his own — dropped out and weren’t replaced. So my most crucial set of the fest was the very first.
After scrambling to arrive before noon to see Control Top, I was glad I hustled. The finest punk outfit in Philadelphia history released their scorching Covert Contracts three years ago and the trio blazed through two new ones from a follow-up they promised in early 2023. The kind of danceable, corrosive energy their shrieking dancepunk brought first thing in the afternoon was highly controlled but not often topped by the rest of the day’s lineup. And even if they skipped a crucial post-Roe “Betrayed” (“by the cronies on the left and the right”), “Type A,” “Chain Reaction,” “Office Rage,” and “Covert Contracts” all exploded like liquid concrete to the face like good post-In Utero nu-punk standards.
VIDEO: Control Top “Office Rage”
It’s been a decade since I’ve seen Titus Andronicus, and a tight mid-afternoon slot is perfect for just making them edit themselves. All the professional touches that have put me off their recent records sounded fantastic on as close to a greatest hits set a band that routinely exceeds six minutes per tune could muster: rollicking keyboard, three-part harmonies lifting Patrick Stickles’ permanently brat-damaged yowl. For “Fired Up” and “Dimed Out,” the latter with a better key change idea than the one on the long-winded Most Lamentable Tragedy, they earned their E Street comparisons anew, and understood this themselves when they sent us off with a pumped “Glory Days” cover in fucking AC. Maybe I should revisit the records.
I’m good on Protomartyr’s though. The two songs I can recognize offhand, “Cowards Starve” and “The Devil in His Youth” kicked off their doomy postpunk set and made for an IDLES with no anthemic choruses or hope. They’re not terribly fun to listen to but Joe Casey is an imposing figure even if the tuneless King Krule voice thing isn’t for me, and whenever I notice a lyric it does haunt me some.
Elder pop-punk dads (there’s a phrase) Samiam were completely unfamiliar to me and I came away somewhat impressed with their meat-and-potatoes hooks before the towering Superchunk relieved them of their duties. “Sorry to bring all this emo out here in the daylight,” exclaimed singer Jason Beebout, and hey, for once that’s fine with me.
Superchunk is a best-case scenario for the average Frantic City goer because 1) they’re the living embodiment of the indie-rock/punk tightrope this festival played to and 2) the records they’ve released in their 40s and 50s completely trample their ricocheting juvenilia. But Mac McCaughan is such a springy dynamo at 55 that even a set where the juvenilia won out (sadly nothing at all from the wonderful I Hate Music or the enraged hardcore refit What a Time to Be Alive) trounced acts two-thirds their age. Nine years ago I saw the most judicious selection they’ll ever play, cherrypicking “For Tension” and “Hyper Enough” and other useful 90s highlights as he pogoed around between I Hate Music bangers. This time “Precision Auto” and “Driveway to Driveway” made acceptable way for the big whoa-oh singalong “Digging for Something” and this year’s stunning, Covid-blackened power-pop “Endless Summer,” not to mention the always-welcome “Learned to Surf” and epochal “Slack Motherfucker.” Jason Narducy’s perfect harmonies made me wish for a stab at 2013’s gorgeous “Breaking Down,” but all of it sounded lovely and gave Frantic City its name made flesh.
VIDEO: Superchunk “Wild Loneliness”
I missed the well-liked Shannon and the Clams but Murder City Devils, Bouncing Souls and Rocket From the Crypt all checked in with their slight variations on each other’s lanes. From across the festival, Murder City Devils smashed away with some boiling fury; when I finally got up close to witness it they were leaning on Great Value Nick Cave dirges and too much haunted-hayride organ. Bouncing Souls’ heartfelt pub-punk fared best of these, keeping riffs and chants as simple as their cabbie hats — I was able to retrace the Menzingers’ steps. Rocket From the Crypt may have kept it a little too simple; their flat-drive garage rock is so surprisingly unsyncopated and predictably chorded for an outfit with horns that the effect can be especially numbing when paired with John Reis’ hammy stage banter and the group’s matching uniforms. It could also make you surrender to fun; if the “On a Rope” riff seems dumber with each succession that’s just more occasion to bang one’s head. The truth is somewhere in between, but their overt crowd-pleasing and beefy repertoire helped clear up why they got such a late timeslot.
Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of Snail Mail at all. Her songs’ sharp basslines gesture at structure, which she dreamily ignores with evaporating toplines. I don’t get Lindsey Jordan’s enormous critical acclaim. She’s certainly likable onstage, deftly navigating guitar tech issues and answering her own jokes: “Where the lesbians at? They’re performing!” More women and non-men awaited her set than any other that I saw (Superchunk had the most bearded and balding attendees up front by far, I should know). But she only played one tune that actually solidified: Pavement’s “In the Mouth a Desert.”
They’re one of my favorite bands, but only in New Jersey could Yo La Tengo headline a festival. Or so I thought. To prove their mettle, one of the quietest and most delicate bands in rock transformed themselves into whatever for Yo La Tengo passes for greatest hits gods. I’ve never seen a “normal” YLT set; at the 2006 Pitchfork festival they played nothing but I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which wasn’t even released yet. “Pass the Hatchet” and “Mr. Tough” slayed and it’s arguably their most festival-ready album, but it was a cryptic, frustrating move. Later I saw them play acoustic from the actual pews of Philly’s First Unitarian Church rather than the usual basement.
This time Fred Armisen doubled Georgia Hubley on drums for the entire show, and between bookends of obscure, garage-y Fugs and Tradewinds covers, a canon of classics so fearsome they didn’t even need “Sugarcube.” Mic and guitar problems didn’t stop Ira from winning an air guitar competition on “From a Motel 6,” and they dedicated James McNew’s lovely Flaming Lips ballad “Black Flowers” to Pharaoh Sanders and Anton Fier. Maybe the squelch-bass “For You Too” and slow organ vamp “Ashes” aren’t classics but they held their own sandwiching the equally elegant “Autumn Sweater” before one of the greatest live sequences I’ve ever seen in my life, the Live Rust-worthy 1-2-3-4 of “Decora” and “Tom Courtenay” repping the unsung Electr-O-Pura, their one-chord “Once in a Lifetime” drone “Ohm,” and a “Blue Line Swinger” so intense I couldn’t believe the man flailing about was 65. Profusely thanking festival organizer and WFMU cohort Tom Abramson, they brought him out to sing a wiggly “Aba-Daba-Do Dance” with Mac McCaughan on tambourine.
It may be time to look at Yo La Tengo as the best band in the world; they were most definitely the best in Frantic City.
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo “Tom Courtenay”
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