I recently had the opportunity to see one of my favorite current bands, Touche Amore, play an all-ages show at The New Direction, a small basement venue, in my modest town of Fargo, North Dakota. The show had sold out well in advance, but an extra 50 attendees were allowed in at the door to meet overwhelming demand (and to put the crowd well past the legal fire code). In a bigger city, this might not sound like such a rare event, but here, it’s nearly unheard of.
The circumstances surrounding how this show came together were nothing if not unique. This was one of only two shows Touche Amore played en route from the west coast to the northeast to meet up with Circa Survive, O’Brother, and Balance And Composure for a package tour; the other was in the equally unlikely locale of Billings, Montana. They could have played almost anywhere along I-94, and somehow they chose us.
Before we go any further, I’d like to note that we get a fair number of shows in my town given that our metro population is only about 180,000 and we’re four hours away from the nearest major city. However, we’re still a small community, most of America only knows we exist because of a certain 90’s movie, and when bands of this caliber come through it often becomes something people talk about for years. If you could find the middle of nowhere on a map, it’d be here, so any time a well known band comes through it’s a big deal. This is not a town where we can afford to take anything for granted, so people here will go see any and all bands that come through town.
Even still, the anticipation that had built up for this show was unlike anything else I’ve seen since I moved here for college eight years ago. It was known well in advance that this show was something special, something we don’t get all the time. At age 27, I don’t often get out to all-ages shows anymore, and the amount of hardcore that I generally listen to now is minimal. However, this show was different. This was more than just any band, and it was more than just any show, and it completely exceeded every entirely unreasonable expectation I had.
In fact, it’s safe to say that for the following half an hour after Touche Amore hit their first note they exceeded every expectation of most of the kids in attendance. Following a solid handful of local bands, Touche Amore arrived at the venue just prior to their set time. The band quickly set up their gear, vocalist Jeremy Bolm apologized for missing the opening acts (shout outs to Tiny Moving Parts, Victor Shores, Baltic To Boardwalk, and Ceiling Walker, all of whom are worth your time to look up), and shortly thereafter the Los Angeles-based five-piece completely put to shame nearly every other hardcore act I’ve ever seen.
The band’s set list pulled tracks from each of their full-lengths, 2009’s …to the beat of a dead horse and last year’s Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me. They also threw in “Hideaways” from their split 7” with Make Do And Mend, and “Whale Belly” from their (as of this writing) upcoming split 7” with The Casket Lottery. One memorable highlight included vocalist Jeremy Bolm taking over the drum kit from percussionist Elliot Babin at the end of “Condolences,” something they later explained it was something they’d joked about doing for a long while, and planned it special for Fargo. This was likely because it was the one show they figured they had the least to lose on.
As the band tore through their set, taking a few merciful pauses to catch their breath, it was immediately apparent that they knew what they’re doing and their choices in gear and tone are extremely intentional. The band’s sound, which could lazily be described as Paint It Black meets Portraits Of Past, derives its heaviness from Tyler Kirby’s abrasively distorted bass and its raw power from the drums, allowing the guitars to focus on filling out the structure of the songs and carrying the melodies, rather than relying on blunt force trauma to create a sense of heaviness.
Guitarists Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens also notably use gear atypical for their genre, favoring a Telecaster and Rickenbacker armed with single-coil pickups plugged into classic Fender Twins; for those without knowledge of gear, this is a pairing more commonly associated with post-rock. They also dial back the distortion, opting for a semi-clean crunch tone, which helped keep the proceedings from turning into mush. More aggressive bands should be taking notes here, because this is how you do this kind of music the right way. Every shred of fractured noise was recognizably audible despite being crammed into a tiny space that wasn’t built with quality acoustics in mind.
For his part, the fact that Bolm actually enunciates his words makes singing along a lot easier, which much of the crowd (this writer included) took the liberty of doing. His lyrics are also a massive part the band’s appeal. Although they’re simple, understated, and hide little behind metaphor, the way his words are able to cut to the core of the human experience as sharply as they do is a rare thing, even for a genre known for wearing its heart on its sleeve. Now in his late 20’s, Bolm doesn’t sound nor appear to be driven by angst so much as passion now.
I’d say the show was over too soon, but my throat (which I screamed hoarse) and my sweat soaked clothing (which could have left a puddle if I stood still long enough) would likely have disagreed.
After spending a good portion of my income on merch, I left the venue with the realization that it had been years since I had this much fun at a show. I haven’t sung along with nearly every word of a band’s set since shortly after I finished high school, and at my age, that was a long time ago. In fact, I haven’t felt the level of excitement for a show that I did for this one in nearly a decade, and it left me wondering at what point exactly did experiences like this turn from novelty, to normal, and then to the past. It’s been a decade since I went to my first show, and for most of the time in between, nothing has ever been the same as it was at first.
This was a realization that was driven home all that much harder when I went to see Cheap Girls play a 21+ show later in the same week. This was another show I was extremely excited to see, and also felt fortunate to get to see them in my town. Their most recent LP, Giant Orange, is one of my favorites that I’ve heard this year. They played a solid set that pulled songs from all three of their full lengths, which also includes 2008’s Find Me A Drink Back Home and 2009’s My Roaring 20’s. They were also gracious enough to play an extra four songs thanks to drunken demand. And it was awesome.
However, there was a stark contrast between these two show experiences that highlighted the differences between going to an all-ages basement hardcore show and going to see a more grown up rock band at a bar, and the things that are lost and gained as we grow older. Pounding beers and nodding along to a band’s set is a lot different than standing shoulder to shoulder in a room essentially made out of sweat and screaming along to every word-words that have gotten you through some of the roughest experiences of your life-as an almost involuntary reaction to the power of what you’re hearing. However, I’m okay with that. I’ve accepted my days of going apeshit at shows are long over for the most part, but why? Did I grow out of hardcore, or did hardcore just fail to grow up with me?
There’s definitely something that changes with your tastes as you get older. Overtly aggressive music hasn’t dominated my listening habits since I was a freshman or sophomore in college, and Bolm himself even recently stated in an interview that he’d be in a band more like The National if he could. However, I’m glad he claims to not be capable of such things, because his band fills a niche in my taste that only a handful of other modern acts really can.
That sentiment Bolm expressed probably helps explain why Touche Amore is one of just a handful of newer hardcore bands I listen to; Bolm is about a year older than I am, writing lyrics that transcend simple anger and hit at something a little deeper. They know how to write solid songs rather than just heavy riffs, and combined with Bolm’s knack for writing lyrics that cut to the core of common human experiences and then delivering them with impassioned force, they’re both physically and emotionally devastating. It’s hardcore that adults can listen to, because for all their abrasiveness and aggression, they’re writing actual songs rather than just hardcore songs.
The fact that I make a distinction between the two will probably piss some people off, and maybe rightfully so. However, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that there is a clear distinction to be aware of here. A lot of bands can be heavy. A lot of bands can appeal to angst. Not a lot of bands can make you feel something intangible, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but something that makes you feel more alive and less alone because someone else knows how you feel, and they’ve articulated it in such a way that you can’t stand still when you hear them play. And before this show, I’d forgotten what that felt like.
As I’ve stated before, for this writer, Touche Amore is more than just a band, and this was more than just another show; it was a chance to feel a sense of excitement for music that I often feel myself losing touch with. And sadly, I don’t know how many more shows of this kind I’ll ever attend that could ever hope to be the same. They captured lightning in a bottle that night, and screaming along to those songs standing shoulder to shoulder with a sweaty crowd was probably the most cathartic experience of my life.
Most standard show reviews are written with a certain level of journalistic detachment, emotional distance, and objective critique. In this case, I’m interested in none of those things. I’m not usually one for grand, overblown statements, but this was the best show I’ve ever been to, and in all likelihood it’ll never be topped. Partway through their set, vocalist Jeremy Bolm stated, “It’s been a long while since we’ve played a show like this. It’s really refreshing.”
I’ll drink to that.
Thanks to John Neitge for contributing his photos to this piece. You can find more of his work on Facebook here.