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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Built To Last: 30 Years of Sick Of It All (Live Review)

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2016 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge Sick Of It All - MATT SAINCOME
  • Matt Saincome
  • Sick Of It All

“This is the first song we wrote as angry teenagers who hated the world. And we sing it proudly today as disgruntled, but handsome middle-aged men who hate the world,” Sick of It All’s Lou Koller said excitedly into the mic before his band — celebrating its 30th year — kicked off into “My Life.”

The crowd came alive, bouncing against the limits of the pit, then collapsing in on itself for gang vocals, and spreading back out again for some two-stepping in the pit. It was a hardcore show, just like the thousands Sick Of It All has played before. And, if you clicked this link you can probably already imagine what it looked like: lots of sing-a-longs and a few of those really embarrassing failed stage dives where the crowd pushes the would-be diver back on the stage.

The guy standing to my left, the burly former owner of Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, told me the most recent time he saw Sick of It All was 20 years ago. To my right, kicking up a storm in the pit, was a 20-something-year-old woman wearing a Straight Ahead tee-shirt. Before the set, she had told me how she had conquered her anxiety of competing for space in the male-dominated scene after maturing in (and enduring) the less-accepting scene of her youth — and it showed. She danced harder than most, going toe-to-toe with anyone in her path with a wild, freewheeling, and uninhibited style.

click to enlarge Trouble Maker - MATT SAINCOME
  • Matt Saincome
  • Trouble Maker
Seeing her dance in that shirt designed decades ago, with Craig Ahead himself on stage, made me think about hardcore’s seeming imperviousness to death. More than a concert, the event felt like a heroic, logic-defying testament to people who say they’ll never quit — and then don’t. It was like a giant celebration of saying “fuck you” to Father Time himself.

Sick Of It All, unlike many notable hardcore bands, never broke up, reunited, and then went on $40 reunion tours. Onstage the band seemed as excited about that as ever. Guitar player Pete Koller spun around with Connor McGregor-styled spinning back kicks, while his brother Lou wore a Negative Approach shirt, black jeans, and a barely concealed smile throughout the night. The band tore through fan favorites with enthusiasm, receiving great reactions for “Pushed Too Far”, “Step Down”, and “Injustice System!”

But the most astute song was “Built To Last,” with it’s lyrics “We won't go away cause we'll always feel this way” reverberating throughout the venue.

One of the first times I saw Trouble Maker (the bill’s local opener) was when I was 16 or 17 years old. The show was held at one of Oakland's many now-defunct DIY venues. This particular warehouse space was called The Hazmat. I'm unsure how the venue got it's name exactly, but considering I once saw a woman smoke crack on top of the P.A. speaker tower while my band played to a mostly empty floor (that was at times spotted with piles of dog shit), it seemed an appropriate title.

But the time Trouble Maker played there I wasn't concerned with what was on the floor, but rather with what was in the sky, as a torrential downpour of aluminum beer cans and glass bottles from rowdy crowd members rained down on the band — much to their delight.

"Throw whatever you want, just aim it at me," I remember the towering frontman Garrett, an ex-football player skinhead bellowing into the mic. The band broke out into another tune and Garrett produced a staple gun. In a rapid fire succession he shot staple after staple into his arm — starting around his wrist and moving up his arm with every snap of the gun until he reached his neck. I remember his head jumping back in pain as the gun bit into his neck. Then he took the mic and whipped it over his head, twirling it around like a madman. Everyone ducked — besides one guy.

That must have been at least eight years ago. But somehow, on Sunday night, Garrett and Trouble Maker were on stage at the much more respectable DNA Lounge in San Francisco, playing the same song with Garrett whipping a mic around his head like a helicopter — until it cracked the guitar player square in-between the eyes.

In a way, that was the message of the night: some things never change.

The guitar player stumbled back as the crowd let out an audible gasp. It was a solid hit, and the microphone amplified the sound to the people filing into the back of the venue.

“Wow, thanks Garrett,” the guitarist said after the song wrapped up, rubbing the point of impact. “I don’t know how I don’t have a baseball-sized lump on my forehead.”

Garrett was unmoved.

“Hey, it’s coming from a place of love,” he said.

And, oddly enough, it was.

Violence, in many forms, was celebrated throughout the night. You could even say it was the theme of the night, with a statistically significant amount of songs containing at least one death threat, and several conversations held in the attached pizza place  winding back around to an old fight or scene beef. But violence also serves as a vehicle for the bands to express much more than a primitive proclivity for score settling. Tucked in between the threats were musicians shouting their most intimate thoughts into the void, trying to make sense of the world around them.

“You’ll be silenced by the violence — you’ve never seen a gang like us before. We won the battle, we won the war, we won’t forget you,” Lars Frederiksen of Old Firm Casuals (and Rancid fame) sang later on in the night as a tribute to his older brother, who died at 33. The song, “A Gang Like Us,” is violent in nature, sure. But it’s rooted in Frederiksen wanting to share his success with a lost loved one who introduced him to the music that took over his life. It’s real, raw, and violent, but also touching.

“Everyday, a fight, every moment, a struggle. I carry on out of spite, won't watch my life crumble,” Gutto of Plead The Fifth screamed into the mic on one of his band’s best tracks, “Weight of Time.” 

“Drunken days drunken nights, drunken sex drunken fights,” Garrett of Trouble Maker sung in what he introduced as a celebratory drinking song, asking the crowd to raise their glasses before it was played. The verse finishes with the real stuff: “Passing out like a jerk, falling down getting hurt. I’ve got a real bad disease, I’m gonna die on my knees.”

And in that way, the shaved-for-battle tough guys of the hardcore scene — sometimes mocked behind closed doors by the genre’s more self-proclaimed enlightened members, but feared in person — expressed themselves.

In fact, you could almost call it folk music, as evidenced by something shouted at the beginning of 4 Skins’ live version of “Chaos:" “We don’t incite violence — we sing about what happens.”

Reporter’s notebook:

  • Every band besides Sick Of It All shouted out a sports team. Trouble Maker paid their respects to the Warriors. Plead The Fifth also gave the record-tieing NBA team a shout out, but followed it up with a pro-Giants monologue that included telling detractors of the team in attendance to leave the venue. Old Firm Casuals said they support the Oakland A’s and Raiders.
  • Drinks at DNA lounge must be expensive. I don’t drink so I wouldn’t know how much they are exactly — but Gutto is usually a bit drunker than he was during Plead The Fifth’s set. They had a new(ish) member on drums who didn’t miss a beat, and a new song that was a treat.
  • Old Firm Casuals played a new song Lars said was off an upcoming EP called something like A Butcher’s Banquet. It sounded great, like a continuation of the material on 2014’s This Means War, which is the band’s best material to date. The group also added another member on guitar. He has “skinhead” and a cross tattooed on his forehead. Cool. With Casey, the frontman of the terrific Never Healed and recently christened Cro-Magon on the other side of the stage, the group is definitely one of the last bands in the Bay Area I’d like to beat me up for something they read on The Hard Times
  • Sick Of It All looks much healthier than most bands formed in 1986... What’s their secret?

Matt Saincome is (depending on who you ask) a punk and journalist living in the Bay Area. Follow his satire publication on Twitter at @REALpunknews.
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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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