While Westport Road bustled with the attendees of some cartography convention, the News Room hosted two nights of punk bands this weekend: each night, 5 bucks; each buck getting you 1.6 bands; all bands giving you a headache when you try to find accurate ways of describing them. There's too much work in splitting the greasy hairs of Punk, too many bands to pick up and examine and distinguish from the others, too much fun to distill.
As the Friday sun sets, the Rackatees open up the fest with a brand of mid-tempo punk familiar to anyone acquainted with the pop stylings made famous by Epitaph Records throughout suburbs near and far. The singer croons like he has just gargled with gravel, and he sounds sincere and downtrodden, regardless of whatever it is he's singing about. Except, is that a ska breakdown? Yes, it is, and the mood of Everything Is So Serious is lightened to Just Kinda Serious. Even still, the crowd exhibited telltale symptoms of fun (clapping, hollering, whistling) between the Rackatees' one- to three-minute sweatless performances.
The sound in the News Room's music room is surprisingly sane throughout the fest - loud enough to get kids bobbing their skulls, but not so loud as to induce bodily leakage, as is often the case at shows, punk or not. At various times, the room is modestly populated; at other times, it's filled, but never uncomfortably so. People lean against the covered pool table or against the wall. Some normal-looking people dance a little. Some obviously punk dudes wag back and forth. A probable drug deal is conducted near the back door, almost completely unnoticed.
Dead Ven's setup is an acoustic guitar slung on the singer's hip, a mandolinist who isn't especially audible, and a drummer on a normal kit. Though there's not much low end to speak of, the crowd stomps along with the quick strums of major chords, and is moved to contemplate the vague social issues addressed in Dead Ven's songs, subjects that would be sobering if not for the fact that most everybody seems sober already. This changes when Smash the State takes the stage and blasts through their set, the singer taking breaks from affected punk-grunt to shove the microphone in random faces that sing along and move around, for the most part. They slip a few slower, moodier numbers into the set that give it a variety mostly dispensed with on this night. Head count in the performance room: 42 heads.
At a certain point, the singer in the Alerts sings the word "democracy." Also, "government." The other guys in the band sing "woah-oh" and play averagely distorted guitars, and so on. Bass lines dance up and down. After the Alerts stop playing, the room is revved. Bent Left plays next. Their darkened pop-punk sets the ambience for a mosh pit that seems riotous but never gets out of control. Iron Guts Kelly glides onstage and plays a solid 30-minute set of mean-person music. The singer paces in a circle or up to some still person in the crowd, shouting like your dad shouts, looking the whole time like he's going to beat and/or eat someone, while the two guitar-playing dudes play notes together and make an effort to stand in the same posture. A mysterious guy crouches behind the guitar amp, doing nothing other than watching the band. He could be a stagehand, or a henchman, or a superfan.
Witnessed in abundance: strangers talking among themselves, bands thanking other bands via microphone, the flicking of spent cigarettes into the alley, baseball caps, cargo shorts. What's that thing called where a guitar player takes the pick and moves it down the strings and makes a sound like ripped aluminum siding? That thing happened a bunch. But two phenomena are remarkably absent from the Center of City Fest: first, people waiting in line to get expensive drinks. In fact there is rarely much of a wait for a cold and cheap beer or well shot from the two bartenders. Secondly, there is little fuss or delay as bands load in and out, tear down and set up. The fest apparently runs logistically smooth, more on time than your average punk would ever be. There's no drama to speak of, not a fight, not an on-duty cop, not a broken guitar string. But will this hold true for Saturday night's continuation of the fest? Will there be blood? Will there be a hatchet? Some public sex? A dog on amphetamines? Maybe.