I still can’t say I’m entirely sure what drove me to see this concert. I’d been in DC for less than a month, routinely get lost even in my hometown, and had only the vaguest recollection of listening to Teen Mortgage on Bandcamp several months before. Nevertheless, I saw the concert advertised online the night before, and before I could actually ask myself why I’d done it, I was standing alone in a dim, empty room thirty minutes east of the University with nothing to my name but twenty dollars and moderate to severe dehydration. It was during the H Street Festival, and while the street outside and the rooms full of DJs upstairs were packed with people, I kept watch over an empty concert floor and a wheezing fog machine. Suffice to say, it was perfect. I’ve always liked small shows. Without big crowds, money, or any technology beyond the bare minimum, there’s a sense of raucousness and spontaneity that’s hard to capture anywhere else.
Venn, the first band to play, already exceeded my expectations. Listening to their albums after the show, I was struck by how much of a difference the live performance made. Their music is technically complex, with intricate melodies punctuated by precision bass lines and drum work, but the energy they brought to the stage gives it an enthusiasm that’s hard to notice through recordings. What sounds like shoegazing on the album becomes screaming onstage, and the tightness of their sound is complimented by the band’s own boisterousness in person. By the time they stepped on stage, the crowd had reached a grand total of about eight people, but they had fun on stage and it showed. Calling for questions from the crowd to kill time while he tuned, the guitarist ended up in a lengthy tangential debate with his drummer and a man in the crowd over whether the Game of Thrones character Tormund Giantsbane died on the wall. Venn proved to be preternaturally good at feeding off the crowd’s energy, even in a setting where their audience consisted of sundry college students, a middle-aged dad headbanging with his school-age daughter, and the increasingly intoxicated singer from the band up next. Whether it was the lead guitarist’s stomping about the stage or the drummer tossing his broken sticks at the bassist’s strings, Venn’s musical talent was brought to life by their performance, and a band I normally wouldn’t have given a second look firmly impressed me.
Up next was the band that had inspired me to come to the show in the first place, Annapolis’ premier trash-punk band, Teen Mortgage. It wasn’t until he took the stage that I realized the man standing beside me, who had been struggling to balance vigorous arm waving and headbanging with sips from his drink, was the band’s singer. My soft spot for bratty garage punk led me to Teen Mortgage online, and they certainly did not disappoint in person. Where Venn was tight and refined, Teen Mortgage’s sound was hectic, with visceral rawness that forces you to move with it. For a two-person band, Teen Mortgage makes a remarkable amount of noise. With surfy, distortion-filled guitar riffs and furious drumming, their songs, like my personal favorite “Is It,” perfectly capture the carefree, self-destructive snottiness that makes punk rock great. All of this is tied together with vocals thoroughly infused with an off-kilter sneering reminiscent of Wavves’ Nathan Williams. After they stepped off stage, I was the first to visit their merchandise stand (a rickety card table with a single shirt hung crookedly behind it), and handed over what little money I had left at that point to the singer in exchange for a T-shirt. Below is Teen Mortgage’s video for “Is It,” which would be a serious contender for the title of “strangest music video I’ve seen all year” if I hadn’t already seen together PANGEA’s “Cat Man.”
Initially, my plan was to leave after Teen Mortgage to give myself ample time to navigate my way home, but seeing Copes (and their girlfriends) haul in equipment and camp out beers-in-hand by the merch stand inspired me to give them a shot, and I was well rewarded. From the beginning, Copes basked in their own frenetic stoner punk energy as they cantered about the stage. It’s a strange coincidence that their bassist complemented the FIDLAR shirt I was wearing, because that LA punk staple is exactly what I’d compare Copes too. Their music captures a remarkable range of tones, from the slower, more contemplative “Ghost” to explosive tracks like “Drop Out” and “Vertigo.” Despite this width, Copes never loses the crass, infectious buoyancy that’s found on every track of their album Never Better. Like the bands that preceded them, Copes did a wonderful job of making the live show a spectacle. Be it the Zac Carper-esque crooning of singer Sebastian Pinto or the violent, almost unconscious swaying of bassist Alec Pugliese, the excitement Copes feel for their music is infectious. As with Venn, the recordings simply don’t do this band justice. The video below is a live recording (unfortunately not my own) of the song “Vertigo” – enjoy.
When I finally left the show, it was with a much deeper appreciation for DC’s local music scene. Growing up in Kansas City, I’ve grown accustomed to small, ramshackle performances from bands with little to no national recognition. Bands like these don’t have pretension – they can barely afford equipment – and that shows the sheer enthusiasm they have for playing. I’d heartily recommend these bands to anyone looking for a fantastic performance in the DC area. So much of the country’s musical talent never leaves unknown bands playing small shows like this. It’s never a bad idea to give them a listen.
Teen Mortgage’s Bandcamp