Portland Arms, 20th March 2006
Last Monday addedentry and I went to see The Evens. I feel less silly for taking a week to get round to writing a review now I find that the band don't appear to have got round to writing a website yet.
I'd never heard of Ian MacKaye (and only vaguely heard of Fugazi) but the advert on the greenmind mailing list sounded good:
"stripped down variations on the rock song - folk music for punks, if you will. Multifaceted yet efficient, straightforward yet sublime, their sound relies on intimacy as much as intensity, their lyrics as politically charged as they are emotionally wrought. Yet at the heart of the band's dynamic is a certain quietitude and sensitivity that ties all this together into a strong pop sensibility."Besides, the gig was advertised as being early-finishing and NO SMOKING. We decided that for a fiver, it was probably worth going if only to contribute to the message that people will still come to gigs even if they're forced to do uncool things like, er, get home before midnight. Or breathe.
At first sight they're an unassuming pair: a balding man in tshirt and slacks, and a pale girl in jeans and blouse with her hair pulled into a high ponytail. These guys do not look like rock stars. They don't look like punks. They don't even look like folk singers. Indeed, it only becomes apparent that these guys who are shuffling around the tiny stage setting up the piles of equipment actually are the band when the chap sits down on a stool and picks up a guitar.
From that point on, there's no doubt.
The music is not just stripped down, it's sandblasted; the result is somewhere between punk showing its emotional scar tissue and folk showing its political teeth. Every drumbeat is a bruise, every chord is a handful of fingernails down the listener's spine. But the band's real strength is in their voices: fierce, full of controlled power and outbursts of raw energy. When they sing in unison or an octave apart, the effect is sparse, spacious; when they share a single melody between them, passing it back and forth, it's like a seamless turn of the stereo dial.
"I'm losing my voice," MacKaye says, after visibly straining for the first time to get a couple of quiet falsetto notes, "but never mind, it'll come back." It does. Later, for a quiet number, he asks for the air-conditioning to be turned off so we can hear better: his request is immediately granted, and the resulting more-than-silence is electrifying. In the small, now-stifling back room, the audience gives the song a focused and unwavering attention that's rarely seen outside classical concerts; it's amazing that two people can make so much noise, but it's no less amazing that a hundred or so people can make so little noise.
It would be easy for such high-tension music to result in an unbreachable wall between band and audience; perhaps the small room helps counteract this, but whatever the reason, the actuality is quite the opposite. Between the songs MacKaye makes eye contact, talks to individuals in the audience, tells jokes, even demands audience participation on one song; Farina either acts as his foil or remains silent, with an amused half-smile from the shadows of the drum-kit at him or the audience. The lights remain on throughout the gig; we're all acutely aware of each other, of the band, of the human contact between us all, to the point where it's almost uncomfortable sometimes -- particularly from my vantage point at front-centre of the room -- to be so close to someone who's singing such stark and uncompromising poetry, such heartfelt protests.
After a couple of encores, requests are taken for the last song. The shouter-out of the request which is played also asks "Could the short people come to the front?" "Yeah, let's do that," says MacKaye. How many gigs have you been to where you'd even be able to make a request like that, let alone expect it to be granted? But we dutifully shuffle around like a school assembly until everybody can see, and they finish with "You Won't Feel A Thing" -- Sit back. Relax. You won't feel a thing .... until the day you wake up.
The final storm of applause breaks the spell, and we wake up, and we feel it. Straight-edge? This is razor-edge, cutting through the airwaves. It does affect you. It does connect you. Watch it reflect you.