Intense Pandemonium at the Brooklyn What’s Album Release Show
The crowd at the Brooklyn What’s album release show Saturday night was a lot more physical than you typically see at concerts by bands this smart. On one hand, that was to be expected, considering how many bodies were crammed into Public Assembly, a smaller space than these guys are used to playing. On the other hand, people dance to this band: within seconds of frontman Jamie Frey’s rapidfire lyrical assault on the opening song, Catastrophe Kids – which ironically is a diatribe about the too-cool-for-school crowd who’re too scared to move a muscle at shows – a friendly moshpit formed in front of the stage. Meanwhile, bumping and bouncing was happening pretty much everywhere else. By the end of their set, what looked like half the audience had gathered onstage with the band for a delirious singalong on the irrepressible, defiant outsider anthem We Are the Only Ones In an era when the too-cool-for-school bands get so much undeserved attention, it felt good just to be part of this big messy crowd, feeding off the explosive energy of the tuneful nonconformists onstage.
In the three years since their 2009 debut The Brooklyn What for Borough President, this band has gotten incredibly tight. While it never really makes sense to say that one great band is necessarily any “better” than another, there is definitely no better band in New York right now than the Brooklyn What. Jesse Katz was a decent rock drummer when they first started; he’s a great one now. All the band’s constant gigging has paid off, especially for their two powerful, individualistic lead guitarists, Evan O’Donnell and John-Severin Napolillo, who teamed up for a gale-force assault that was as intricately tuneful as it was loud (and it wasn’t always loud). They hit a high point on a long, pyrotechnic duel midway through Punk Rock Loneliness, a cruelly amusing look at gentrification and its destructive effects on music and New York neighborhoods. They did the same thing on the encore, the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, where Frey left no doubt what that song was all about, Napolillo dodging stagedivers as O’Donnell hung on the sideline, nonchalantly firing off searing, Ron Asheton-worthy bluesmetal leads.
In between, the dynamics shifted artfully from pummeling punk rock to slower, more pensive material, Frey’s goodnatured come-on croon leading the band upward on the impressively jazzy Winter Song and then the ridiculously catchy Late Night Travelers, an artsy anthem written by the band’s late guitarist Billy Cohen. Caught at a rare loss for words, obviously still hurting from the loss of his bandmate, Frey managed to explain that this band was originally a six-piece outfit and that Cohen – who if he was still alive would probably be doing film scores, and the indie classical music he had such an affinity for, in addition to this project – would be proud as hell. There’s no doubt that’s true. Then the band launched into Cohen’s wickedly shapeshifting, theatrically surreal Hot Wine, their new album’s title track.
Coy, sarcastic soul and doo-wop-influenced punk matched up against searing postpunk like the ridiculously catchy singalong In the Basement – an anthem for disheartened outsiders everywhere, not to mention this year’s Mets team. The biggest crowd-pleaser could have been a cover of Gimme Shelter that might have been even better than the original, bassist Doug Carey taking Bill Wyman’s growling lines and somehow making them even more menacing, the two guitars tuned down to perfectly recreate Keith Richards’ otherworldly eeriness, Saruh Lacoff (of side project John-Severin & the Quiet 1s) taking Merry Clayton’s backing vocal up several notches.
The Brooklyn What also happen to be a magnet for other good bands. Opening acts are usually hit-and-miss, but this lineup was strong. Butter the Children got the night off to a good start with their swirling vintage MBV/early Lush dreampop jangle and clang, their guitarist and bassist exchanging axes and playing equally tunefully on each instrument as frontwoman Inna Mkrtycheva sang uneasily about Casey Anthony and similar tension-inducing situations. Osekre & the Lucky Bastards followed with a tuneful, catchy set that mixed oldschool soul and Afrobeat. After that, Persian-American rockers the Yellow Dogs, who began with an artsy, biting Rickenbacker guitar anthem, wasted no time hitting a slinky, equally anthemic, swaying funk/disco groove. The Brooklyn What are at the Lab, 224 Wyckoff Ave in Bushwick on Feb 22, L/M to Myrtle-Wyckoff.