Live: New York’s Alright Isn’t What You’d Expect

Mike Sugarman reflects on the second annual installment of punk/hardcore festival New York’s alright.

April 23, 2014

There's a video going around from NYC PUNK FESTIVAL New York's Alright this past weekend of a shirtless guy getting hit by a firework at show. His wrenching body betrays searing pain from the explosive, but his face broadcasts the same savage ecstasy as a pro wrestler using his thighs to strangle an opponent. When punks truly turn up, they experience something sublime. The ultimate live experience at a hardcore show involves good music and good pain. You're immersed in a cloud of harsh music and body odor, singing along with a front man who is shooting you two middle fingers. I witnessed this vision of the sublime over and over again at New York's Alright last weekend.

Reed Dunlea and Adam Whites organized the second edition of their New York's Alright festival this year, bringing together punk bands, and in turn fans, from all over for four days of loud, body-odiferous shows in lower Manhattan and north Brooklyn. Reed and Adam, as told in their comprehensive interview with Jenn Pelly on Ad Hoc, were looking to found something of an underground summit, a way for the young hardcore bands to come together and revel in the vibrancy of their scene. Shows at Le Poisson Rouge, The Wick, 538 Johnson and The Acheron sold out. Folks from places like Boston, Richmond and Pittsburgh were compelled to travel to New York to see bands with homebases as far flung as Texas, Japan and Sweden. This is the rare musical movement today thriving at an exclusively grassroots level, one as notable for it's harsh noise-like approach to punk sonics as it is for the participating bands' almost total lack of internet presence.

Hardcore, for those unfamiliar, is the extreme, sonically violent branch of punk that sprouted in Washington DC and New York in the '80s. After three decades of evolution, hardcore's predominant sound today bears little resemblance to that of originators Minor Threat, or to the Vans Warped Tour brand of hardcore that proliferated during the early to mid '00s. It's worth noting that you are currently reading a report written by someone with only cursory knowledge of the hardcore scene that is thriving in Brooklyn right now, and in turn apprehensive to cover New York's Alright. Where I grew up in New Jersey, “hardcore” really meant screamo, and I was generally bummed that NJ punk somehow started out with the Misfits and ended up with Thursday. Fast forward to recent times, and I had basically let the years-old, Underoath-flavored taste in my mouth deter me from any hardcore shows in Brooklyn, despite having lived in the same building as the Bushwick loft venue 538 Johnson and being professionally entangled with 285 Kent, which hosted three days of New York's Alright shows in the festival's inaugural year.

I've heard friends talk up local acts like Goosebumps and Dawn of Humans, but I really only went to New York's Alright last year because of my favorite festival, Ende Tymes. Run by noise scene veteran Bob Bellerue, Ende Tymes is a multi-day Brooklyn harsh music festival which brings in noise and experimental acts from all over the country (and generally at least one from abroad), lending coherence to a disparate community while assaulting a hungry audience for hours at a time with myriad musical ideas and an immodest amount of volume. I figured, ok, if New York's Alright is anything like the hardcore equivalent of Ende Tymes, it was worth a shot.

In fact, New York's Alright was fun, and remarkably similar to Ende Tymes, with a tight sense of community cohering around a shared affinity for loud, alienating music. But my attitude about hardcore did not change. I only caught one afternoon show last year, and the standout was La Misma, who had the stage presence of mistreated rottweilers and an electricity that makes a good live show no matter what the genre. I thought La Misma was a good band and likely the exception to a pet theory about punk I had developed from the admittedly small number of shows I'd attended since college. The theory, which will make me few punk friends, was that current punk is ironically kind of fascistic. Regressing from the stylistic complexities of post-hardcore bands like Fugazi and Unwound, current hardcore saw every member of a band playing the same note at the same time in the same rhythm. There is this eerie zealotry to make a band into a sound machine, in which individual identity is usurped in the name of a uniform big sound. There's all this pageantry around anger, generally articulated by the sole person with an individual identity on stage, the leader/singer. Contemporary punk kind of creeped me out.

Well, it ends up I was just a stubborn dick, and any physical pain endured this weekend on the edge of a circle mosh was karma in action. I learned this year that variation and complexity are the name of the game in hardcore these days, and that the brutality can be joyous, not just regressive. Perhaps the best way to explain the many different sounds I heard at New York's Alright is to elaborate on the type of moshing they induced. New York's Warthog's oscillated between breakneck thrashing and sludgier work at Le Poison Rouge on Friday, and their moshers went from randomly body-smashing to doing this simian trudge in a circle, stooped down with arms swinging stiff and in tempo. It's worth noting that singer Chris Hansell lumbered like an angry warthog himself. At the beginning of their set at Le Poison Rouge on Saturday, Austin, TX hardcore outfit Wiccans induced frenzied flails with amp feedback alone. Word to the wise: if you're interested in crowd surfing, make sure to do it earlier in the set, since the crowd's goodwill runs dry and they start dropping stage divers after about 20 minutes.

London's very own DIE was the aforementioned band with the front man wielding the double bird. Their crowd at The Wick on Sunday fed off a virile, vicious derivative of the classic British punk sound. The fans took the opportunity to lob ice at the stage after one of DIE's members tossed a cup. That's what inspired the flipping off. The same show yielded the most fun set of the weekend, by hometown favorites Hank Wood & The Hammerheads. A hundred-plus-deep, throbbing mass of people jumped in all directions to the band's unlikely fusion of hardcore and '60s psych. People somersaulted from 15-foot high speakers onto a crowd that at one point bolstered a roughly four-foot-tall model of a house during a song that went, Hey you, get out of my house. The model house was quickly dismantled by hungry hands, and the The Hammerheads's singer had to dodge a wall that was thrown his way.

In so many words, I felt like an idiot for picturing Hank Wood & The Hammerheads as a bunch of alpha males in leather spitting at the audience. I had zero idea that Hank Wood & The Hammerheads would cop the Rolling Stones and facilitate massive amounts of good vibes via surf organ and clean guitar tones. And in terms of dress, two of them looked rather sharp in tucked oxford cotton and chambray. During a festival where on-stage facial expressions typically ranged from pissed off to burdened by the world, it was a shock to see this band smiling. The organ player's keyboard stand collapsed mid-set, and he just laughed and lit a cigarette. I wouldn't say that my faith in punk was restored by Hank Wood & The Hammerheads. It wasn't renewed by Crazy Spirit, who dress like the average joe victims in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and whose drummer is also the singer of The Hammerheads. Nor was it revived by Chicago's Gas Rag, whose singer had the low-key ferocity of a guy who would walk away whistling after he set fire to a senior citizen's home. They didn't restore my faith in punk because I had no faith in punk to begin with. If anything, these bands just forced me to ask the question, “What the fuck do I know?”

What I witnessed this year, instead of uniformity, instead of the presumed sonic fascism, was anarchy. No, not “anarchy” understood as a kind of run-of-the-mill anti-authoritarianism dolled up in Hot Topic apparel–I mean anarchy as anti-coherence, as heterogeneity within unified community. I used to think that this music was defined by a ubiquitous fashion and sound, but realized that hardcore in 2014 is a movement of wildly differing personalities and styles. Musicians were as likely to be seen in the stereotypical leather-and-spikes look as they with a pressed button-down and a sharp haircut. Friday featured Proxy's self-described “punk rock party music” by day, and Saran Man's solo industrial music by night. Some music was next level, some left me cold, but the persistent variety was inspiring. If the singer of Wiccans could wear a polo and still push a crowd to the edge of insanity, then who knows what else is possible in this scene?

Live: New York’s Alright Isn’t What You’d Expect