As a fledgling writer — and a huge fan of Drive Like Jehu — I jumped at the chance to write about Wrecking Ball Fest when the opportunity was presented to me. What started in 2015 as a 25th anniversary celebration of the Masquerade, the legendary and, arguably, most famous mid-sized venue in Atlanta, became in its second year a farewell celebration before moving west.*
Ask any local musician who played shows at the Masquerade in the ‘90s and ‘00s, however, and they’ll be sure to regale you with stories of having to sell tickets for the venue in order to play — or worse, having to pay to play altogether. They’ve curtailed the practice in recent years, but the unfortunate legacy remains. In fact, when the Masquerade’s closing was announced, my Facebook feed was full of praise and relief. And then there’s the topic of the awful sound. The upstairs stage, Heaven, is especially notorious for this issue. Although I’m not a sound engineer, it surely can’t all be the fault of incompetent sound guys — the venue’s a converted cotton mill, and I’d assume that doesn’t exactly yield great acoustics. Some people complain about the staff, too, but that’s a different issue.
(* Nevermind, construction hasn’t even begun.)
Anyway, going into the fest, there were a couple other minor concerns/controversies:
- When I got a notification in a local Facebook group that there was a Groupon offer for over 50% off tickets to the fest, I assumed it wasn’t selling very well; the e-mail that appeared in my inbox a few days later announcing 50% coupons directly from the venue more or less confirmed it. And yet, the fest was packed. Something must have worked?
- The hardcore band CIV (named for its vocalist, Anthony Civarelli, who also played in Gorilla Biscuits, who also played the fest — and neither of whom I saw perform) made internet headlines for a few days last week when Civarelli made a speech ostensibly defending the “All Lives Matter” movement. (The words in question: “In 2016, people still have to wear shirts that say ‘Black Lives Matter’. No shit. Brown, white, yellow, black, we all fucking matter. Everybody here matters.”) My take: It’s very possible that, rather than espousing Anti-BLM rhetoric, he was merely expressing frustration that we even need a Black Lives Matter movement (because the fact police brutality, housing & workplace discrimination, educational inequality, or The New Jim Crow even exist anymore is despicable.) On the other hand, his words did, in a way, downplay the significance of the BLM movement, and ignorance is no defense.
But, I digress. Onward:
My brother and I got a late start on Saturday and ended up getting there as Deafheaven was setting up. (I would have liked to catch Drug Church or maybe a song or two from Milemarker, but oh well!) Their stage, Park North, was conveniently right next to the press and will-call table. I stood a few rows back for the first couple of songs; aside from the overpowering bass drum on “Come Back,” the band sounded great, considering they were playing outside. However, at this point in the day the heat was still a bit too much, so after hiding out under a tree for another song, I left.
I had originally planned on catching Deafheaven’s aftershow that night at The EARL, a local dive bar, with Sumac, but as the weeks passed, I became more indecisive, and the show ended up selling out. No doubt they would’ve sounded better there, but alas…
When I was a freshman in college almost five years ago, Touché Amoré‘s Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me was a monumental record for me. Over time, my interest in them waned — maybe the music had become too associated with the painful memories from that year — and I actually never ended up catching them live. Fortunately, the band was playing after Deafheaven in Heaven, but evidently they were a popular choice because the line upstairs was a long one.
By the time I got inside, I was almost suffering full-blown heat exhaustion, and resigned to watching their last few songs from the back. Anyway, maybe it was the exhaustion or maybe it was the fact I was all the way back, but I have to say they didn’t quite hit that nostalgia bug for me. At least the fans up front seemed pretty stoked, singing along to every word with charismatic frontman Jeremy Bolm.
I must have sat in the shade for upwards to an hour replenishing fluids before Wildhoney took the small outside stage right outside the entrance. I had only heard the band for the first time a few days prior, but was pleased to say that their live show left quite an impression.
However, I left halfway through their performance to catch a good spot in Hell for Ceremony, who were easily one of my most anticipated performances of the festival. I’m pleased to say that not only did they not disappoint, they exceeded my expectations.
I’ve been a fan of the group since I first heard Violence, Violence five years ago — when I was still firmly in my hardcore phase — and my interest in them only grew as the years went on. While my music taste was expanding beyond metal and hardcore, they were busy experimenting with post-punk. It almost seemed too perfect to be real that our respective musical journeys aligned so well. It’s not clear how many of the fans in Hell were indifferent, or worse, averse to their new musical stylings, but it is fair to say the older songs easily got the most interaction, with several fans jumping from rafters into the crowd. (But then again, hardcore generally promotes a more energetic crowd reaction, so we shouldn’t necessarily judge by that measure.) Even I busted my vocal chords screaming along to “He-God-Has Favored Our Undertakings” (from Still Nothing Moves You) and “I Want To Put This To An End” (from Violence, Violence). However, the stuff from last year’s excellent The L-Shaped Man translated over particularly well, too. I only hoped that my vocal chords would recover for my most anticipated performance of the festival, Drive Like Jehu…
DLJ took the Park North stage an hour later, as the clouds began rolling overhead and the sun set over the horizon. “20 fucking years!” I heard someone shout repeatedly. The anticipation was palpable.
And then they rolled into the first notes of “Super Unison.”
Throughout the performance, John Reis was the sight to see, sweat shooting off of him like boomerangs. The sound wasn’t perfect — like Deafheaven and everyone else who played Park North and South, they would’ve clearly sounded superior inside — but I was close enough to the stage to let the sheer volume overwhelm me. And it was glorious.
And yet the crowd wasn’t nearly as active as I had imagined. Perhaps people were exhausted, perhaps this crowd was a bit older than most of the crowds at the festival (and sparser, too), but everyone just seemed docile. I can forgive the lack of singalongs — I could barely hear Rick Froberg’s vocals during “Here Comes the Rome Plows” and “Sinews,” which seemed to be poorly mixed — but the applause seemed light, even. True, it definitely wasn’t the largest crowd (especially for a band playing outside), but what gives? If I wasn’t grinning so much during the performance, I would’ve been more annoyed. “Sinews” in particular was great, with Reis layering on mountains of feedback during the verses, and the closing one-two punch of “Here Come the Rome Plows” (which came off much faster, and subsequently, angrier than on record) and “Luau” was perfect.
(Photos of Deafheaven, Daddy Issues, and The Joy Formiddable below. All photos credited to Aaron Braunstein.)
My brother and I got an earlier start on Sunday, arriving around 2. (I would have liked to catch some of Bully or Looming, but oh well.) Broken Beak were setting up at the outside Purgatory stage, and they proved to be a nice surprise. (Apparently, Brendan Lukens of Modern Baseball plays guitar for them.) Plenty of sad, contemporary emo vibes — which somehow seemed fitting in the midst of this muggy early-afternoon heat. I highly recommend their newest release, Some Nerve (Near Mint).
I then headed over to Park North for Tigers Jaw, who easily had one of the younger crowds I saw that entire weekend. To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of them — pop-punk isn’t really my thing, despite being a huge focus of the whole festival — but I liked Charmer (their most recent record) a bit. However, it quickly became clear to me (and increasingly moreso, as the day wore on) that, with the combination of early-mid-afternoon heat and poor sound, I’d rather not watch anyone at Park North or South unless I was already a huge fan. Sorry, Tigers Jaw.
I then headed over to the indoor Hell stage to catch a few songs from Pears, who my brother described as “NOFX worship.” To be fair, I don’t think either of us has really listened to NOFX since middle school, so I don’t know how accurate that statement is. All things considered, though, they had some cool breakdowns and a pretty energetic vocalist, so it wasn’t a waste of time.
Burn was playing upstairs right around this time, so my brother and I went upstairs to watch them. Although I’d heard their name mentioned in NYHC circles, I don’t recall ever listening to them during my hardcore phase. I don’t know if I would’ve liked them if I had, but the songs I heard on the official Wrecking Ball Spotify playlist reminded me of Helmet and Slint, so I made sure to catch their performance. (I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised, as the band was on Revelation Records — who released records from Texas Is The Reason, Into Another, Elliott, etc. — and their drummer later played in Seaweed and Quicksand, the latter of whom also played the festival.) Even with the shoddy sound emanating from Heaven, I was pretty impressed with their set. I wish I could have seen more, but my third most anticipated band of the festival, Mothers, was on next in Hell…
… and they were simply amazing. Hell, I haven’t even listened to When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, their debut LP, in its entirety more than once or twice. (Though that’s partly due to my obsession with its main single, “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t.”) The group’s main songwriter, Kristine Leschper, apparently wrote the album while subsumed in heartbreak and grief, and, well, it’s pretty clear with the song’s title, if not the lyrics. Over these past few months, as I silently carried my own feelings of loss and grief, this song has been a sage reminder for me to just keep my head up: the pain will eventually subside. In those moments, as the band played the track for us, I looked at Leschper, with her self-effacing presence and timid, almost innocent, voice, as an otherworldly figure. I understood.
In addition, I was truly impressed by the musicianship on display, as the band harmonized in tight, syncopated rhythms. They sounded great, and as I left, I definitely looked at everyone who wasn’t there with a little contempt.
I wanted to catch a few songs from Joyce Manor, who were next at Park North. However, like Tigers Jaw, I’m indifferent to the majority of their material, and their live show wasn’t really grabbing me, so my brother and I headed over to the shade — which, as it turned out, was under a stationary truck and pretty stellar for people-watching. American Football was next at Park South, directly on the other side of the field from Park North, but I also wanted to catch a few songs from Potty Mouth, who were playing in Hell.
I’m not too hip to this recent trend of grungy pop-punk groups like Swearin,’ Ex Hex, or Hop Along, but I liked Potty Mouth’s songs on the aforementioned Spotify playlist enough. And? I never would have thought I’d see myself typing this, but I wouldn’t have minded missing American Football. Potty Mouth were heavy. Listening to their record now, I can say it’s fine, but it doesn’t hold a candle to their live show.
So, yeah. American Football were dull — which was hella disappointing being that they were my 4th most anticipated band of the fest. Maybe their slow post-rock vibes didn’t translate well live, or maybe the band’s burned out after the last couple years of playing reunion shows left and right, but I really was not impressed. “Never Meant” wasn’t even that great! I was a little disappointed with the size of the crowd, too, though I don’t have any official projections on that. It was big enough, I guess, but I expected more folks — especially because American Football was such a huge influence on many of the bands at this very festival. Silly teenagers.
Afterwards, we headed up to Heaven to catch some songs from the legendary American Nightmare, whose discography I haven’t really delved into. I thought their songs on the playlist were pretty cool, though, and I’m glad I got to see most of their set. If you get a chance to see them, don’t miss it!
We stayed upstairs to wait for Trapped Under Ice’s set, which turned out to be a good idea as the room quickly met capacity. I used to like TUI a lot back in my freshman year of college, and though I hadn’t listened to them in years, I was excited to see their set. Clearly, the crowd was too; I forgot how impassioned and rowdy hardcore fans can be, especially during the breakdowns (which TUI, all things considered, does particularly well). I started feeling a bit claustrophobic, though, so I headed over to Park South to see a bit of Dinosaur Jr.
I wasn’t too familiar with their discography aside from one or two songs and their cover of “Just Like Heaven” — I always liked Sebadoh better, honestly — but I thought I’d give their live show a chance. Clearly, it would’ve been better inside. I opted for the stationary truck.
(Photos of American Football and Tigers Jaw below. All credited to Aaron Braunstein.)