Other than people, the one thing I miss most that the pandemic has taken from me is live music. Since high school live music has been my number one emotional release. The stress of everything during the pandemic broke my nervous system, and I think the absence of live music certainly played a large role in this. It was music that saved me in high school, and I have my sister to thank for introducing me to the punk scene of the 90s. I was lucky to grow up in the suburbs of Chicago and have the city and all of its great venues so close at hand, no more so than the infamous Fireside Bowl. That shitty, shitty venue could not have been more removed from the squeaky clean sheltered suburban landscape that I grew up in. It was dirty, raw, and god help you if you needed to use the bathroom. But to any kid fortunate enough to go there during its heyday, it was heaven.
Yesterday my oldest friend asked me what my top five favorite shows were – an impossible question. I thought about it all day and after consulting my master list of all the shows that I’ve been to, I came up with the following top five. Of course, if someone asked me tomorrow, it would probably be different. I consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten to see so many great bands in so many great venues with so many great friends by my side. Anyway, on to the list!
1. Alkaline Trio at the Fireside Bowl (1998)
The second show I ever saw at the Fireside Bowl was when I was 16 and happened to be the Alkaline Trio, who would become my favorite band. (The first being the Slapstick reunion show in November 1997. You can see just how nerdy I was if you can manage to find a copy of the VHS from the show and watch the credits to the end.) At the time I had no idea who Alkaline Trio were. I was invited to go with some friends and another friend asked if I could pick up their Sundials 7 inch. I was just excited to go to the Fireside and didn’t care who was playing. They were out of the 7 inch but had just released the For Your Lungs Only EP so I picked that up for my friend instead. Turned out he didn’t want it so he let me have it and it is one of my favorite pieces of personal music history. At the time the band was still waiting on the CD inserts so they took my address and mailed them to me later, which led me to get several handwritten postcards from then drummer Glenn Porter.
When they started playing it was like a revelation. I feel like I must’ve stood there the entire time with my eyes wide open just soaking it in. After experiencing that there was no turning back, live music was the greatest outlet I’d ever experienced, especially punk rock.
2. The Appleseed Cast plays Low Level Owl in its entirety (2010)
Alongside Alkaline Trio (and Discount), my favorite band in high school was The Appleseed Cast. For many years I was obsessed with their first record The End of the Ring Wars, writing the complete lyrics out over and over. A few years later their sound evolved, leading to their Low Level Owl records. Much like Ring Wars, the songs were all interconnected and, unlike most music nowadays, needed to be listened to in its entirety, not just as singles. Flash forward a decade or so – I’m living alone in Forest Park, IL and they decide to do a tour playing both of these records in full. Incredible. Dreamend opened that night and during the intermission between LLO Volume 1 and 2, they played an episode of Saved by the Bell to keep the audience entertained. At that point in time I had started filming a number of shows I went to as part of an arts website I was trying to get going called Before It Burns Out. Like many of my projects, the site itself burned out fairly quickly but the videos remain and can be seen here. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them a couple other times, but there was something very special about this performance, especially as it was in a time before many bands started doing full albums shows.
3. Alkaline Trio in D.C. a week before 9/11 (2001)
After high school I went to study at American University in Washington DC. On September 3, 2001 as part of the Plea for Peace tour, Alkaline Trio headlined a show with Thrice and Hot Water Music. At this point Alkaline Trio was the biggest band in my world. It seems like almost every night we were drinking and listening to one of their records (at least I was). A bunch of us all went and had a great time. I’ve seen the Trio more than any other band and have never seen a bad show. What made this one so special was that I was able to get up on stage next to Dan for their big hit, Radio. Screaming along, looking down at all my new college friends in the crowd having a great time, is one of my happiest memories. Looking back on it now, and noting the date, it’s fascinating to think that just eight days later the entire world would change. DC itself felt like a war zone. I suppose it makes that night all the more special, kind of my last “innocent” outing before the terrorist attacks.
4. The Lawrence Arms 10th Anniversary Show (2009)
Brendan Kelly’s bands have been a staple of my musical world since I first learned about Slapstick. Years later, working at a Barnes & Noble, I met a guy named Bob who would become one of my closest friends. I remember one of our first conversations being about music and when he asked about my favorite bands one of them that I listed was The Lawrence Arms. Him and I would spend many nights together drinking and partying and TLA became one of “our” bands with “Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure” becoming our song (as I’m sure it did for any number of other drinking dudes at that time).
Thus, when they announced they would be doing a special 10th anniversary show at the Metro, and that it was being filmed for a DVD, there was no way we couldn’t go. (You can pick it up from Fat Wreck Chords here). The openers that night were The Menzingers, La Plebe, and Mike Park. We got a great spot right in the center of the pit and sang along until our voices were gone. To make it all the much more epic, the screenshot that’s used on YouTube for the Ramblin’ Boys video features the two of us on the left hand side.
5. The Get Up Kids at the Metro (2009)
It was so hard to choose shows for this list, but one of the main factors was who I got to share the experience with. My best friend growing up, Wesley, is the reason I’m writing this list at all. Life has taken the two of us in a number of different directions, but we are still connected and one of those major connections is through music. He is the first person I got to share punk rock with when I was in seventh grade, and we used to share headphones during lunch listening to bands like Screeching Weasel and Sludgeworth on my Walkman before returning to the drudgery of our Catholic education. We tried to form bands a number of times, which resulted in my only ever public performance with our band Linus Loses His Blanket at my high school talent show.
Jump ahead to 2009. After moving away from Chicago I moved back and was living on my own. He, meanwhile, left Chicago for California. However he happened to be in town when the get up kids performed at the Metro. Another of my all-time happiest memories was at that show. I believe it was another anniversary show. I remember it as the first time that the music we listened to in high school took on an air of nostalgia, the sense that we were “adults” now, but we could always reach back to our youth through this music. Anyway, it was an amazing show, with such great energy, and I remember the two of us having our arms around each other in the middle of the pit singing our hearts out and it was one of those moments when nothing else existed in the rest of the world. Thank you TGUK, thank you Wes.
There are so many honorable mentions that it seems better to save them for another post in the future. What are your greatest live music moments? I know to those who don’t understand this is going to sound like hyperbole, but without music I really don’t think I would be alive today. What it meant to me growing up, and continues to mean to me, can’t be put into words Please people, get vaccinated, wear a mask, and do everything you can to help end this pandemic as soon as possible so we can all get back to the venues!