August 31, 2012
Plaza Condesa, Mexico City
By Grant Cogswell
It was a night of contradictions. I’d never been to the year-old venue Plaza Condesa before, and it came as a shock. One steps from the sidewalk of the tight, jungly, gracious old-world Hipodromo neighborhood into a converted office building in which past a cantilever-floored entry opens into a very high, ultra-contemporary hall that might accommodate two thousand people, excellent acoustic, classy indirect lighting, bars with the menu on plasma screens. There were five local bands opening for the headliner, with absolutely no stylistic association whatsoever.
When Fucked Up went on at 12:30 a.m., it seemed the crowd had thinned, the venue at one-quarter full capacity. Bands from north of the Rio Grande get a raucous reception here just for having come so far, for the cultural validation so long denied this city and country (“This is one of the greatest cities in the world”, singer Damian Abraham effused) and the enthusiasm of audiences here tends to push musicians from colder climes harder: these shows are almost always better than they have any right to be.
Fucked Up (“we’re from Toronto”) are themselves a strange and binary unit in the process of morphing from a traditional hardcore punk band to something very different.
On three albums, their songs have evolved much on the trajectory of another long-ago hardcore band that became melodic and, splitting, finally acoustic: Husker Du. The instrumentals, particularly on their 2011 Matador Records release David Comes to Life, are driven by layers of guitar and in their sad glory are reminiscent, of all things, of fellow Canadians the Arcade Fire. But their vocalist is still hardcore: bald, fat, and screaming, making his way through the slamdancing crowd for the entire duration of the show. (Fucked Up don’t mind a pit. This one would have given Ian MacKaye an aneurysm.)
This divided style is fascinating to watch, a moth becoming butterfly. The singer – who has a great heart and soul – maintains such a strong presence that the guitar and drums (happening up on the stage) can’t help but lose its equal place. On older songs (‘Police’) this is suddenly a real hardcore band with the varnish off, but such a relapse by necessity takes on a museum quality. Abraham’s scratchy, unregenerate voice – the essence of what your grandmother probably thinks a punk vocalist sings like – is so incongruent with Fucked Up’s current musical trajectory that the band becomes more than the sum of their parts: they are an art project, something like what Wire became almost immediately, or what Sonic Youth was on their first EP.
These are terrific songs, but if you want to hear them, you’re better off listening to the records. This is not to say you shouldn’t go see this band, you absolutely should. This kind of intensity and open-hearted devotion are too rare in this world. (Don’t get the idea this is some kind of hopey-hopey Against Me! vibe.) Live, Fucked Up are a religious testimonial: come forward, bathe in the sweat of this hairy shirtless man, and be saved.
Grant Cogswell is proprietor of Under the Volcano Books in Mexico City and blogs at www.underthevolcanobooks.com. Stephen Gyllenhaal’s film Grassroots is about Cogswell’s time in Seattle politics, and is making the rounds.