I wonder if there is there such a thing as feel-good protopunk. Smiley ruffian rock? Goodhearted punk with a positive message?
Last night three dudes in the later decades of their life beamed through a beautiful headlining set filled with lots of leather and cheetah print and moshing and Doc Martens. I have never seen performers so excited to share their music, and aside from a slip up in which the bassist, Bobby Hackney, referred to San Antonio as San Diego, a punk audience who was excited to listen. It was a celebration of road to stardom paved with impossible obstacles for the now legendary trio.
Spiritual driven, politically aware and widely acknowledged as the first punk band in addition to the first black punk band, Death is not adverse to breaking boundaries. Their documentary A Band Called Death (2013) follows the journey of the three Hackney brothers, beginning in the early 70s, who developed a unique sound; the predecessor to what became known as punk. Questlove was quoted in the film saying, “The Ramones got all the glory for what this is right here, and this is pretty much The Ramones but two years earlier.”
The boys faced adversity from their funk-focused community in Detroit, Michigan, during the Earth, Wind & Fire movement and got shit for playing “white boy music.” They later forfeited a record deal with Clive Davis who wanted Death to change its name to something a bit more marketable and David, the band’s guitarist and front man, refused. The name was inextricably linked to the music and the mentality i.e. the reality of death, its inevitable shock value and its affiliation with life.
Needless to say, I was surprised but damn enthusiastic they were making a stop in good ol’ San Antone at the Paper Tiger, of course.
No amount of apparently Whataburger-inspired paint can mask the punk rock heritage of the place we all knew and loved as The White Rabbit. The graffiti’s gone, but the signature darkness remains. There’s a kid in a Misfits mask holding his dad’s hand next to a 40-year-old guy in a button down hugging his beer belly a bit too tightly. There is apparently a black attire-only policy and just so much wing-tipped eyeliner.
Self-described as dirty messy chicana punk, Fea opened up the night with lots of synchronized jumping and talk singing. I felt like I had just walked onto the set of 10 Things I Hate About You in the best way. I, obviously a fan of angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion, was immediately overcome with angst and various additional lady feelings. The crowd sang along about being cliché and I watched the bass player with particular affection for her high energy and unapologetic stage presence. Formed from members of Girl In A Coma, Fea features a female majority and a male guitarist who takes the lead but not the shine from the ladies.
Sporting sunglasses and dreads, the gentlemen of Death took to the stage and the fist pumping ensued. The intricate, hard-hitting bass lines shoved the songs forward and the guitar progressions sang alongside the high-tempo tunes. Constantly smiling, the group was always interacting with one another and looked as though they were home after a lifetime of being away. Here goes a statement I didn’t think I would ever make - Death was fun.
Three songs in, the pit opened up and we threw ourselves around to the staccato-ed chorus of “Freakin’ Out.” I forgot how much fun sweating and pushing really is. They then debuted a new track titled, “Look at Your Life.” The chorus instrumental breakdown and crescendo into the verses indeed had me like, “Damn… I do need to look at my life.”
Bobby took time to pay tribute to their late brother and founder of Death, David, during the set. “He is here with us,” Bobby grinned. “He would have been so proud.” It was only after his passing that Death received recognition and fame for its genius.
Addressing their recent rise in recognition, Bobby thanked the audience. “Thank you to everyone who goes to underground shows and raves and house shows… the ones that look for the music. Y’all knew what was going on before we did and you brought Death back to life.”
I leave you with some dialogue from the encore, “YOU WANT MORE MUSIC?”
Yes, Death. Yes we do.