TOUCH AND GO RECORDS 25TH ANNIVERSARY BLOCK PARTYThe Hideout, Chicago
Friday, Sept. 8-Sunday, Sept. 10
A quarter-century ago in a bedroom in Maumee, Ohio, a young gentleman named Corey Rusk began an endeavor that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would have an indelibly profound impact on American independent rock music. Touch and Go Records, established as an offshoot of a fanzine in 1980 to release a 7" single by Rusk's band The Necros, has grown over the years to encompass not only the hardcore punk and "pigfuck" sound of the label's nascency, but also a surprisingly broad and impeccably tasteful array of bands and performers in more recent years, including Tucson's beloved purveyors of desert atmospherics, Calexico.
With that in mind, the Touch and Go 25th anniversary celebration this past weekend at Chicago's Hideout struck perhaps the only self-congratulatory note ever heard from this modest-to-a-fault camp. But what a note it was.
Four of my closest friends from college, guys with whom I had discovered this incredible label and its bands, set out from all over the country (well, OK, Arizona and Ohio), certain that it would be three days of musical nirvana for our particular sonic palates. We couldn't have been more correct.
The first real treat was the set by the reformed-just-for-this-occasion (the same was true for several other bands) Girls Against Boys, who played their powerful debut album, Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, in its entirety as their set on Friday at 7 p.m. The weather was beautiful; GVSB was tighter than a gnat's chuff, and the Chicago skyline was visible in the distance as the sun went down. GVSB plied a gritty, bass-heavy rock trade in their day, marrying D.C. postpunk with the propulsive bombast for which Chicago rock was known in the late '80s. It's weird, then, to note that this band, which has been broken up for nearly a decade, has never sounded better. (An aside: Our favorite joke about GVSB, revived for this occasion, was that lead singer Scott McCloud, who's a bit of a mushmouth, would eventually go on to form a school of rock enunciation, enlisting Mark E. Smith, Britt Daniel of Spoon and Mick Jagger as professors.)
Later, a decent but unremarkable set was turned in by Central California dance miscreants !!!, closing out the first night with their high-energy, goofy dance punk. !!! singer Nic Offer made the first of many sartorial and tonsorial transgressions against good taste during this long weekend by sporting a skintight tie-dye like he needed a miracle.
Saturday featured a veritable crap-ton of great bands as the festival hit full swing, but the two most anticipated performances were by bands that had not played at all in nearly 20 years. First was Scratch Acid, an Austin, Texas, band revered as sort of a less brain-damaged but heavier-sounding cousin of the Butthole Surfers. Madman vocalist David Yow (also known for his penis-flaunting antics as the lead yelper for the Jesus Lizard, a Touch and Go staple which did not re-form for this event) made a characteristically demented joke as they got rolling: "I decided to stop eating shit, because it was making my vomit stink." They pounded through nearly their entire catalog, and for an hour, it was as if Reagan was still president, and Austin was still weird.
Undoubtedly, Saturday's highlight was the brief set by the original lineup of Big Black, a group (and individual, in the person of frontman Steve Albini) that has had an immeasurable impact on underground music. The 7,000-strong sellout crowd was literally buzzing as Albini, guitarist Santiago Durango, drum machine Roland and original bassist (and Naked Raygun singer) Jeff Pezzati strolled out to gales of adulation. Albini dropped a small brick of Black Cat firecrackers on the stage, per the Big Black tradition, and they jackhammered through four songs off their first two EPs--"Cables," "Dead Billy," "Pigeon Kill" and "Racer X."
"I know what you're thinking: 'What was the big deal?'" said Albini after "Cables," but in fact, the big deal could not have been more self-evident. Big Black--loud, acerbic and gloriously angry--was a band so far ahead of its time, its audience took nearly two decades to catch up.
Sunday was a rainy blur, and space doesn't permit a fuller indulgence, but Calexico represented both Tucson and the evolution of the Touch and Go sound so well that for a moment, I could imagine the Sears Tower, just over bassist Volker Zander's right shoulder, as magically transported to the Tucson skyline. Calexico's Joey "Mr." Burns did a freestyle rumination in the middle of "Crystal Frontier" that linked his hometown with the Windy City (which he amusedly insisted on pronouncing "Chee Cah Go!") and places in between; what he was getting at, I think, was that for as much as "scenes" are about place, what this event proved was how this disparate group of people was linked aesthetically and psychically--we are the Believers in the power of independent music. It was a fitting end to an ecstatic celebration of the virtues of an apostasy to the mainstream.