Our Band Could Be Your Life Tribute @ Bowery Ballroom, NYC 5/22/11

It’s ten years since Michael Azerrad first published his defining DIY ’80s scene portrait Our Band Could Be Your Life, which covered an independent music culture that changed irrevocably a decade before that with the release of Nevermind. Round anniversaries make apt opportunities for retrospectives, and in the case of Our Band, this year has been a sort of meta-reflection: between a panel at SXSW, and last night’s show at Bowery Ballroom, 2011 has seen a few organized moments of the present “indie” culture celebrating and reflecting on how the blueprint Michael reported in his book has shaped, and been updated by, whatever it is we have now. Beneath the heady ethos and hearty culture values — the proper connective tissue of these indie generations — are the songs, these bands, those lives. Last night 14 contemporary bands covered the 13 from the book. It was a fantastic love letter to the catalogues of those Our Band bands.

The night raced at an essentially unflagging pace. Hosts Eugene Mirman and Janeane Garofalo mostly and wisely stayed out of the way, though owners of Our Band know from Garofalo’s blurb she probably would have talked at length about her love for the book and the bands if given the chance. (Instead there was only a brief anecdote about the time a pre-fame Bob Mould crashed on her couch and her ill-fated crush on said bear magnet, and a brief mention about how tUnE-yArDs is all over Sirius these days.)

Dirty Projectors began by covering Black Flag. They’ve done it before, famously, on their album Rise Above (David Longstreth’s track-for-track “reimagining” of Damaged). On this night, however, it would be done in the actual style of Black Flag. That is, furious and fast and punk, and inspiring moshing (by like five kids, but still, that is probably a Dirty Projectors first). Hearing “Thirsty And Miserable,” “Rise Above” et al in that manner set the reverential, amped tone continued by Delicate Steve’s take on Minutemen — joined by Tim Harrington for “This Ain’t No Picnic” and, excellently, by Lee Ranaldo, the only principal player from the book’s bygone era to appear last night, perfectly cast on vocals for “History Lesson PT 1″ and “Jesus And Tequila.” Ranaldo delivered the “Our band could be your life” lyric in the manner it deserved. He understands.

In a night of highlights it’s unfair to single out any, though it’s hard not to after St. Vincent’s visceral “Bad Penny” (hell of delivery on “I think I fucked your girlfriend once”) and “Kerosene” backed by Dirty Projectors Nat Baldwin and Brian Macomber, or tUnE-yArDs’ outre/looped reinvention of Sonic Youth’s “The Burning Spear,” or Titus Andronicus’s set as the Replacements with Craig Finn (who materializes anytime anyone references Minneapolis anywhere in NYC) in full cop uniform (and crowd surfing) for “Kids Don’t Follow,” or Dan Deacon’s smoke-machine psych-freakouts with Butthole Surfers (with backing video of Woody Harrelson and cheeseburgers), or Ted Leo’s pitch perfect Minor Threat set bookended by dramatic moments at a mic stand while stage-prowling during the moments between, backed by pre-recorded music played on a worn and scuffed reel-to-reel.

Since the book itself is a love letter to the indie infrastructure that developed around, and made possible, the DIY show-scene of the ’80s, it was a testament to that methodical organization that the concert’s band changeovers were swift and efficient: getting 14 bands to set up and stick to their 10-minute allotted set times was a feat in itself, and though the crowd size fluctuated in proportion with the popularity of the performers, the energy rarely waned during the evening’s four-plus hours.

The show did one thing the book did not: last night Nirvana was covered. After Yellow Ostrich’s closing set of Beat Happening, Wye Oak and Dirty Projectors drummer Brian Macomber returned to stage as a house band Nirvana, with Dan Deacon (and Buke and Gass’s Arone Dyer) singing “Negative Creep,” Ms. tUnE-yArDs Merrill Garbus doing “Lithium,” and many waves of crowd surfing including one by Mr. Azerrad, at the behest of Dan Deacon. A proper scene for a celebration of Scenes from the American Underground.

For more, here is a gallery of photos by Natasha Ryan, in chronological order (per the night, and the book) and YouTubes from the evening, starting with those Nirvana covers.

Parting proposal: Write a book on DIY artists in the internet age, call it Our Bandwidth Could Be Your Life. Takers?

UPDATE: NPR has the whole show streaming, and the internet has provided most of it via video.

tUnE-yArDs, Wye Oak, Dirty Projectors – “Lithium” (Nirvana)

Dan Deacon, Buke & Gass, Wye Oak, Dirty Projectors – “Negative Creep” (Nirvana)

St. Vincent – “Kerosene” (Big Black)

Titus Andronicus & Craig Finn – “Kids Don’t Follow” (The Replacements)

St. Vincent, Nat Baldwain, Brian McComber – “Kerosene” (Big Black)

tUnE-yArDs – “The Burning Spear” (Sonic Youth)

Buke And Gass – “Long Division” / “Guilford Falls” (Fugazi)

Ted Leo – “Filler” (Minor Threat)

Titus Andronicus – “Kids Don’t Follow” (The Replacements)