Having arrived at U Street disturbingly early due to some very poor planning on my part, I was waiting outside the entrance to the venue making awkward small talk with the man next to me and ignoring the homeless man demanding to know whether we were “one of them.” As a true son of the Midwest, I still find the idea of a city with an actual nightlife to be jaw-dropping, and as such I was pleasantly thrilled to see people bustling about between restaurants and bars on a Wednesday night. U Street Music Hall itself is extremely nondescript, a squat brick building that exudes a sort of irresistible urban grit. Ultimately, I’m certainly glad I arrived early, as I had some difficulty in proving that I had tickets. Luckily, as I was searching through my email for evidence, I was approached by the manager of the opening band, who took pity on me after hearing me mention WGTB and promised to get me in regardless. I got my ticket, and I’m still not sure if it was from the radio or from Aye Nako, but either way I appreciate the patience of U Street’s attendants and managed to claim a spot immediately in front of the stage with ample time to spare.
I had never heard Aye Nako prior to the concert, but I was extremely impressed by the Brooklyn based punk band’s opening performance. While Aye Nako is superficially similar to other queer-punk bands like Hunx & His Punx or PWR BTTM, they combine that genre’s typical garage angst with a focus on complex melodies that speaks to the influence of New England bands like Speedy Ortiz and Ovlov. The end result is a heady mix of distortion heavy punk noisiness and intricate guitar work that experiments with technical elements like alternative tunings without losing any of its energy. “Sissy,” my personal favorite song (barely edging out “Maybe she’s born with it,” about guitarist Mars Ganito’s teenage job at a Maybelline factory in Arkansas,) is brimming with furious drumming and packs a ludicrous amount of intricate guitar riffs into less than two minutes worth of song.
As for the main act, Bully absolutely lived up to their reputation as an excellent live band. While Alicia Bognanno’s background in musical production helps to polish Bully’s recordings and add an extra layer of complexity to songs like “Not the Way” and “Seeing It,” Bully’s albums can’t capture the sheer cathartic chaos of their live performances. The drums set a frantic pace on songs like “Milkman” that is complimented by sharp, punchy guitar and Reece Lazarus’ incredible bass lines. Bognanno’s vocals buzzed with characteristic unrestrained, grungy spite that proved utterly infectious. Surprisingly for a Wednesday night crowd, the audience was large and enthusiastic, pulsing with movement and belting out the lyrics to early singles like “Trying.” With Bully barely pausing between songs, I was already aching and soaked in sweat by the time they launched into crowd-favorite “Six,” off of their first album, Feels Like.
Building a relationship with the crowd is seldom easy, but Bully certainly made it seem so. The atmosphere was friendly and jovial, with Bognanno taking one of the rare breaks between songs to chat about Bully’s time in DC, including their excitement at unexpectedly (and inexplicably) receiving a mural made of Jell-O shots from a fan the night before the before the concert. Bully made a point of connecting with fans, even going so far as to greet a concertgoer they’d ran into earlier that day at CVS. They fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm, and it showed as their set progressed. With the crowd already feverish with excitement, the raucous chorus of “Feel The Same” had the band headbanging and staggering just as much as their fans.
True to form, Bully put on a spectacular performance that brought their already enjoyable recorded work to life. Simultaneously full of 90s era grunge nostalgia and excitingly fresh, they’re certainly not a band to be missed. They’re still in the early days of their tour, but I doubt they’ll be any less exciting as time goes on. They’ll be heading out west after this show, but I certainly hope to catch them next year in Kansas City.