Saturday, March 1, 2014
Better than: Your band
When the opening guitar riff of "Set It Off" rang out, the cult-like tradition of hardcore cro-magnons destroying each other began. Freddy Madball popped up on stage wearing a Long Beach boxing jersey, his long hair tied back in an almost Ray Cappo-esque bun. He took the center of the stage and spread his heavily tatted arms out as the crowd yelled three words in unison louder than the PA ever could: "SET IT OFF!"
Seeing Madball in 2014 as a hardcore kid puts a lot of things in perspective. The genre is oversaturated with festivals booked around bands that played hardcore for two or three years in the 80's and then called it quits. There's endless Internet hype over short-lived projects featuring "members of" some other short-lived Internet hype band. Then there's Madball, still chugging along after more than 20 years, touring with younger bands like Twitching Tongues and Born Low, and about to head back into the studio to record what Freddy promised (in his thick New York accent) would be "Not just another record. It's gonna be THE record." His excitement isn't just contained to future records either -- he is an extremely active and energetic frontman, jumping up and down and rocking back and forth. His enthusiasm flowed into the crowd on Saturday, giving everyone the jolt they needed to mosh side-to-side for the hourlong set.
Perhaps at the heart of Madball's heavy pummeling sound is the band's machine of a drummer, Mike Justian. Every time he hit the snare, it was like he hit it with a 10-pound weight instead of a drum stick. Justian is the newest member of the band, which was apparent by his choice of footwear. He wore weird Crocs that look like they were designed to look like Converse. But hey, if Crocverse are what it takes to master the double bass pedal, I have a feeling lots of drummers would be picking them up. Plus, with friends like Madball and the rest of the Doc Martin Skinheads crew, I'm sure he doesn't get much shit for his shoes. In fact, I feel like I might get beat up for just mentioning it.
But that's part of the extra-musical allure of Madball -- the members are fucking scary. It's part of the band's legacy and legitimacy. Freddy got his start singing encores for his older half-brother's band, Agnostic Front, when he was just a little kid. They're from the Lower East Side in New York City. They shouted out a song to their friend in the crowd who just got out of jail. How can you be more legit? I don't think you can. And that's part of it. Madball is almost like a super-tough spirit animal for scrawny hardcore kids like me.
That toughness is part of the whole vibe from the moment you get to the show. When I first arrived and lined up outside Thee Parkside, a towering skinhead wearing freshly polished oxblood boots pulled his bleached denim jacket over his shaved head to protect himself from the rain. This brought his back patch high enough for me to read it over the people in between us. It said "Black and Blue Support" with a skull and crossbones design -- except the skull was the SF Giants logo, and the bones were baseball bats in black and blue, the colors of New York's DMS crew.
Madball's intense and authentic live performance says more about this band than the documentaries I've seen, articles I've read, or stories I've heard. It was just utterly apparent as the band members tore through old and new songs that hardcore still lives inside their hearts. They just have something special, some X-factor that sets them apart from other hardcore bands -- especially their older peers. Because let's face it, as far as hardcore goes, Madball has probably just about seen it all, and at this point is a well-oiled mosh machine. As Freddy bounced around on stage, sweating through his jersey, you didn't get that half-assed vibe that comes off of so many older bands. He even made a point of saying, "We aren't an old band!" But if your band has releases older than members in the crowd, you are pretty much a grandpa in hardcore years.
With a band like this, it's not the size of the room that matters -- it's the spirit that Madball fills those rooms with, like the devilish grin Freddie showed after leading a huge gang chant. Madball's Lancaster show, which was supposed to happen the night before San Francisco, was canceled at the last minute. With two days' notice it was moved to a small room in Davis, where the Branch Street Crew and the Sacto Style boys played host. Plead The Fifth, a Sacto band that's tougher than a two dollar steak and opened the Davis show, could be seen tearing up the pit the next night in San Francisco.
Never Healed opened up the San Francisco gig in devastating fashion. It was its first show since the Rival Mob came to Oakland, but the band sounded tight and well practiced. Its front man, Casey -- an enormous skinhead and intimating vocalist -- made another appearance on stage later in the night when he set up Madball's gear and worked the stage while they played. Twitching Tongues took breaks from its grungy, metal-infused hardcore to watch Pirates of The Caribbean playing on the flat screen above the bar. Born Low opened the pit up with some heavy moshy tunes and mosh calls like, "Catch the beat!" and "Move that fucking floor!"
Gems from Freddy Madball: "I wanna see the old school mudda fukkas and the new school mudda fukkas. We need that foundation of the old school and the new blood of the new school."
"You don't gotta be from the streets to respect this movement that started in the streets."
"You can't stop his movement that started in the streets" (before the band played "Can't Stop Won't Stop").
"Before you buy the next Bruno Mars or Lady Gaga record, buy our new record. Support hardcore. We need the money more than them."
"Big shout out to my man Doug who just got out of jail" (That one was actually from the bass player, Hoya).
"If you don't want to let some shit out right now then move to the side. Play the wall."
"You're supposed to bounce off these fucking walls -- this ain't a pop punk show."