“So how the fuck did all of you get tickets?” says Paul Lee, the singer of ’90s East Bay punk band Monsula. There’s an air of genuine disbelief underneath the frontman’s excitement for what’s about to take place at the Rickshaw Stop, like he can’t believe he’s there, too. No one answers. They don’t know how they got tickets either. Most seem nervous with incredulity, worried that Jawbreaker aren’t there — or, more likely, their anticipation soiled the set before it started, the aftermath of deifying a band for more than two decades.
It’s hard not to build up a reunion of this gravity. Jawbreaker spent 21 years in the shadows after a fistfight on tour in 1996 brought the band to an immediate end. Of course, Blake Schwarzenbach, Adam Pfahler, and Chris Bauermeister went on to pursue other projects — the most famous of which, Jets To Brazil, only lasted six years — and weren’t as unreachable as other defunct acts. But the terms on which they ended suggested an irreparable split. Schwarzenbach was “broken” and didn’t think that feeling would change anytime soon. Fans resigned themselves to the fact that Jawbreaker would never reunite, and the chance to see them live had long since passed.
We live in an era of expected reunions; they’re an opportunity for bands of any size to capitalize on lingering fandom, monetized nostalgia, and digitally archived FOMO. The sheer influx of recent reunions inevitably lowers our expectations. For every authentic return (Slowdive, A Tribe Called Quest, Sleater-Kinney), there’s twice the number of what some perceive as being half-hearted cash-ins (At The Drive-In, Blink-182, LCD Soundsystem). But for punk acts, it’s even harder to replicate their peak. Lyrics and instrumentation are secondary to the emotions that prompted a lot of punk acts to form a band; it’s why so many listeners grow out of their punk phase, or why re-listening to an album feels like viewing a mindset they no longer inhabit, a section of their youth they’ve since grown out of. So much of punk fandom relies on the live experience — it’s music that’s tied to a feeling, and when decades pass, replicating that feeling is essentially impossible.
On paper, Jawbreaker’s show at Rickshaw Stop seemed like a dream. It marked the band’s first headlining show in 21 years in their hometown of San Francisco, no less, at a 400-cap venue. Two local, since-defunct ‘90s punk bands — Monsula and Nuisance — opened. Jawbreaker kept to their DIY roots to a certain extent, opening it up to all ages and selling tickets for $20 with an intense anti-scalper will-call pick-up. For a band that swore it would never reunite, but then announced it would indeed reunite at Riot Fest 2017, performing a proper set in the small-sized venue setting they never broke out of during their career seemed as good as it could get. Yet somehow, Jawbreaker exceeded that.
Over the course of an hour, the pop-punk trio stood just as fans remembered them: nonchalant and somewhat secretive. They didn’t care about perfecting the set or performing from the continually growing pedestal they were placed atop post-breakup, but they didn’t try to flaunt indifference either. It felt like a band recapturing their original attitude. Though camera crews filmed and GoPros were mounted around the stage — flyers taped to the venue’s walls warned attendees that they would be filmed, presumably for an archival concert tape — it didn’t feel like a production. If anything, Jawbreaker’s first live return, their opening set for Monsula last week, was one. There, Schwarzenbach read the John Keats poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn” before launching into a seven-song set. At the Rickshaw Stop set, there were no frills. A roadie asked if Jawbreaker were ready to play. Schwarzenbach shrugged. Then they played. “We’re your local band and we’re just as pleased as punch to be here,” he said. After 10 songs, they slipped off their instruments, thanked fans for coming, Pfahler tossed their setlists into the crowd, and all three walked offstage.
A lot’s changed since Jawbreaker broke up. For one, live audio has taken great strides, and it allowed Jawbreaker to exceed sonic expectations, both for a live show and by comparison to their records. The ragged gruffness of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy got a glossy glint and Dear You cuts sounded massive, the only albums they performed from. “I’m using an in-your-ear monitor for the first time in my life,” said Schwarzenbach, seemingly unfamiliar with the feeling. “Huh.” When you learn how to deliver your songs in barebones rooms like Bay Area DIY venue 924 Gilman Street, getting studio-quality riches allows a band like Jawbreaker to bask in their full potential. It may be two decades late, but Jawbreaker’s live sound flourished in a way that’s growing harder to witness amongst reunion acts, never mind punk bands. Bauermeister’s intentionally dissonant bass lines came to the forefront, Pfahler’s fills — which were performed while chewing gum, looking unphased — sounded tighter, and Schwarzenbach’s voice upheld its distinct bellow, even after throat surgery years back. They may have stumbled through the intro of “Sluttering (May 4th)” and mumbled a couple lyrics, but Jawbreaker’s first headlining set as a bunch of 50-year-olds felt like the rejuvenating, body-shaking moment that fans dreamed of catching decades back.
Don’t Break Down, a documentary about Jawbreaker that’s been in the works for over a decade, premiered the same weekend as the show. Of all the details revealed in the documentary, none stood out like the tension between Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister, a rift that seems indebted not to petty disagreements but to disjointed respect. Though discreet, the two shared the stage on Saturday night with low-flying playfulness. That relationship may not be fully repaired, but it’s a start, and it kept the expected awkwardness at bay.
Jawbreaker didn’t have to reunite. Their influence continues to rise, crawling upwards from one generation to the next, without any movement on the band’s end. While this reunion — like their earlier decision to sign to Geffen — came about because of moneybags, it isn’t devoid of the underlying spirit that earned them a diehard fanbase. Maybe that’s why this show didn’t feel like a run-through for Riot Fest. It felt like a genuine concert. It was a genuine concert. Jawbreaker ended with a one-two punch that summarizes their brand of emo — the final refrain of “Sluttering (May 4th)” (“If you hear this song a hundred times it still won’t be enough”) segueing into “Condition Oakland” (“This is my condition/ Desperate, alone, without an excuse/ I try to explain/ Christ, what’s the use?”) — that felt as relevant now as it did back then. It seemed impossible for a punk act to return to the stage gracefully while simultaneously delivering the energy of its peak period. But Jawbreaker wrote punk songs full of feeling that weren’t hinged to a specific age group, which has allowed their songs to grow stronger over time. Ten minutes after the house lights came on, all three members emerged from backstage and shuffled out the front door alongside their own starstruck crowd. Not a single person stopped them to ask for photos or an autograph. Once outside, they stood amongst friends and did what everyone else found themselves doing: recapping the evening from a firsthand perspective of disbelief, amazement, and an indescribable sense of fulfillment that’s been a long time coming.