There is an art to putting together a music festival. Or, rather, there should be an art to putting together a music festival. That’s true on the biggest stages, where the entities in charge of compiling the massive thousands-in-a-field marathons seem content to use SZA and Odesza in interchangeable ways. And it’s true on the smallest levels, too. Consider: the Washington, DC festival Damaged City, now in its sixth year of celebrating the global DIY hardcore punk underground. That is a tiny and specific corner of the musical universe, and yet Damaged City 2018 felt like its own entire world. The people who put that thing together mastered the art.
My plan was to devote my entire weekend to Damaged City, a four-day affair that came to venues around Washington this past weekend. But my daughter got sick and had to come back home, so I only ended up at two days of shows. I missed a whole lot of bands that I was deeply curious to see: Primal Rite, Rixe, Warthog, Limp Wrist, Nandas, Witchtrial. But two days of hardcore is so much hardcore. The first of those two days was something exceptional — a record-release party from Turnstile, easily the biggest and maybe also the most divisive band in this whole scene now. The Turnstile show seemed much bigger and more consequential than any of the others. The audience seemed very different from the one at the Black Cat the next day. So maybe I only really got to see one day of Damaged City. Or maybe I got to see two different sides of this world. More than two, really.
Most of the bands at Damaged City played 15- or 20-minute sets — and when you’re dealing with a genre where 90-second songs are the norm, that’s really all you need to get a sense of who a band is. And the people who organized Damaged City proved amazing at the aesthetic Jenga of figuring out which bands would sound good next to which other bands. At the Turnstile party, just about the whole bill seemed to be made up of fast, adrenal, metal-influenced stuff, music that could’ve worked just fine during the late-’80s crossover-thrash era. On Sunday afternoon, there was an art show with a bill full of bands who sometimes sing in Spanish. And on Friday night, I saw a late-night after-show full of breakdown-heavy, spinkick-inducing bruiser music.
There was a moment at that late-night show where someone from the crowd vaulted onstage, grabbing the hulking singer of UK band the Flex by the T-shirt so that he could sing along, directly into the guy’s face. In the process, he ruined the singer’s T-shirt. This seemed like an unwise move. The Flex’s singer, like a lot of hardcore singers, looks like a bully from a movie about high-school football players, and he looked pissed. He didn’t do anything to the guy besides saying something like, “Oi, you owe me a shirt,” but then he took his shirt off, and if I was that guy, I would be looking for any excuse to take my shirt off. For about a split second, I wondered whether he could’ve told someone in the crowd to do that just so he’d have an excuse. He didn’t, of course; that is not the hardcore way. But this was a take-your-shirt-off show.
Another note about shirts in that late-night set: I saw two successive bands that had members who wore Sepultura shirts. They did not coordinate this; it was just the sort of night where people were especially interested in repping for Brazilian death metal. Meanwhile, someone in the Flex wore a Bolt Thrower shirt; perhaps UK hardcore bands prefer to rep for their own death metal bands. And all the members of Diztort — a California band with a singer who reminded me of Mark Wahlberg — wore Diztort shirts, like it was a uniform. (One of the two guitarists just wore a plain black shirt. I wonder if they were running out of Diztort shirts or if he just refused to obey band-uniform ordinances.)
The four bands who played that late-night show all fit into a specific slot. They all play hard and feverish, lurching into slow and martial mosh-part breakdowns where they’re supposed to. And yet they all played with force and intensity. They all meant it. A whole festival of bands like this would be a drag. But a quick four-band bill in the midst of a festival that otherwise didn’t have too many other bands like it was perfect. It was like a sideshow. You commit completely to this hard chug for two hours, and then you come back the next day for something else.
But the bill in the main room at the Black Cat earlier that day was another story. That day seemed designed to showcase just how much aesthetic variation there is in this world, how many sounds could fit under the same umbrella. At one end of the spectrum there was Blood Pressure, a Pittsburgh D-beat band who seemed to radiate hate for everyone and everything. Their singer was a tiny, fire-eyed, shaven-headed guy who stared daggers all around him. Despite the tattoos and the other subcultural signifiers, he gave off intense-accountant vibes, like Michael Douglas at the beginning of Falling Down. The band’s music was a fast, brutal buzzsaw, and they played it with a physicality that added a whole new dimension. Most of the people I talked to outside the club thought they were the best band of the day, easily.
I liked Blood Pressure a lot, too, but my favorite band of the day was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Wildhoney, from Baltimore, are really only punk by association. They play shoegazey dreampop, with music that sometimes roils and sometimes sighs. They sounded gorgeous, and encountering them in a day full of misanthropic growls was like encountering a sudden ray of sunlight in a dingy basement. Near the end of their set, Wildhoney played a sincere, tender, melodica-assisted cover of Sixpence None The Richer’s She’s All That soundtrack nugget “Kiss Me.” People laughed, but they laughed in delight, not derision. (As much as I like to think I’m built for DIY hardcore, my favorite moments of the day were probably that cover and the between-bands DJ sets where the pop-friendly selectors would put on “Back That Azz Up” or “Dancing On My Own.” This stuff wouldn’t have happened in the ’90s punk underground days, when everyone seemed intent on proving themselves more punk than everyone else. The kids are getting smarter.)
Texan headliners Radioactivity played wiry, muscular garage rock. LA’s Blazing Eye gave us rickety, trebly political punk. Buffalo’s Brown Sugar were hardcore, but they were messy and miasmic and possibly drunk, which lent their set an appealing Stooges vibe, something weirdly enhanced by the singer’s constant losing battle to keep his microphone plugged in. The women in Boston’s utterly badass Firewalker don’t look super-hard, but their sound is a feral, warlike chug with throat-shredding death-metal growls. The singer for Richmond’s Nosebleed does look super-hard, and during her band’s set, she charged into the pit — not to pass the mic around or anything, but just because, I got the feeling, she couldn’t stand to stay outside of the moshpit.
The bands I saw this weekend represent a very small part of a ridiculously exciting scene, one that honestly doesn’t get covered enough on websites like this one. (I write about it a fair amount, but I’m also old and don’t go to shows that often anymore, so I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.) It’s music that demands to be seen live, and festivals like Damaged City — or Toronto’s Not Dead Yet or LA’s Sound And Fury — represent some of your best opportunities to soak up as much of it as possible. If you get a chance, you should take advantage. There’s a whole world of this stuff out there.