It's a common misconception that punk rock is nihilistic and destructive. On the surface, punk's language and style certainly evince a cynical worldview, but within all of punk's vitriolic reactions against the naive utopian visions of the '60s, there also lies an earnest desire for a better world that's similar to 1920s folk labor anthems. Richmond, Va.'s (Young) Pioneers aim to prove these similarities by mixing the gritty cynicism of punk with the storytelling tradition of folk music. The Pioneers' songs are short, sharp shocks with the succinct delivery of the Minutemen and the caffeinated yelp of the Clash. In addition to those punk progenitors, the Pioneers are more notably tethered to the roots of the American folk-protest songs of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
On the 14-song, 28-minute Free, guitarist/vocalist Adam "Stackolee" Payson's arm-whirling barre chords fuel the anthemic rock 'n' requiem of "Downtown Tragedy." Bassist Martin Violence plucks a Memphis-soul style four-string strut, while Fred Lapier bashes his drums to accent the fist-pounding guitar chords of the chorus, on which Payson screams, "These are the cocaine times/ Where the lumpen die." After pausing briefly to reload its arsenal, the trio quickly leaps into "The Movement Loves You." Similar to the socialist politics of punk-folkie Billy Bragg, Payson's lyrics address the individual within the masses: "Baby, we've got our fathers' names/ And hearts that move against free trade." Harmonica strains overcome Payson's overdriven scream and crackling guitar, while the rhythm section eases the throttle to close.
Like folk singers, the Pioneers demonstrate their mission to revitalize punk's music-with-a-message political awareness through their lyrics. And -- perhaps unintentionally -- by including cover versions of the Impressions' "Meeting Over Yonder" and the obscure early-'80s punk anthem "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" by (Impatient) Youth (whose name clearly influenced the Pioneers' parenthetical moniker), the trio draws a musical map for us to trace its lineage. True to both folk and punk tradition, the (Young) Pioneers intend to provoke individual thought while jostling a crowd.
The (Young) Pioneers play Saturday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. at 924 Gilman St. in Berkeley. Admission is $5; call (510) 525-9926. Also, Sunday, Jan. 24, at 9 p.m. at the Tip Top Inn, 3001 Mission, S.F. Admission is $5; call 824-6486.
-- Dave Clifford