Apr 04, 2024

Avail Concert Review: Over The James Festival 2023

Rich Tarbell

Rich Tarbell

There’s an experience that I’d like to recommend. It seems pretty logistically difficult to replicate this specific thing, and it will take a lot of timing and luck on your part, but if you can make it happen, you should. First, you need to be at an outdoor show that gets evacuated because of lightning. Then, you need to find a bar where you can hang out with friends and get just a smidge of beer-buzz going. If it was disgustingly, inhumanly hot before the thunder, that’ll help. Then, when you get the notification that the show is back on again, head back with your friends. It’ll suddenly be beautiful out, and you’ll feel a whole lot better than you would’ve if you’d just been at an uneventful outdoor gig all day. And when you’re walking back through the cool twilight, make sure the Gaslight Anthem are onstage. That’s the key.

The Gaslight Anthem, man. What a perfect band for a perfect moment. At this point in their history, the Gaslight Anthem are not a punk band. You could argue that they were never a punk band, though this would probably be a dick thing to do. (They’ve certainly never been a hardcore band.) The Gaslight Anthem got their start in the New Brunswick basement-show universe, but they clearly always wanted to make windows-down classic rock anthems of the Tom Petty/Bob Seger variety. Bruce Springsteen was always that band’s north star, and they just dropped a song with a Springsteen feature last month. They’re living the dream. If you’re at a punk show and the Gaslight Anthem arrive onstage, then your punk show will magically transform into a rock concert.

I’m about the same age as the people in the Gaslight Anthem, but I didn’t grow up with their music. When that band showed up on my radar, I was already fully grown, and I loved them, mostly because they reminded me of being younger. The Gaslight Anthem did gravelly pop-punk, the Hot Water Music thing, but they did it with this weary grown-up authority that made the songs sound classic, eternal. Then they blew up and started making records that were progressively less punk and less interesting, though they always had at least a couple of honest-to-god emotional signalong bangers in there. Then they broke up and got back together, as so many bands do. Now, the Gaslight Anthem are a full-time band again, and they sound absolutely magnificent in a field, after a rainstorm.

When I saw the Gaslight Anthem in a post-rainstorm field last month, I loved them again. The band’s songs always hit some hidden instant-nostalgia button. “The ’59 Sound,” their definitive anthem, is about mourning a dead friend, and I think about it every time I lose someone, which happens more often as I get older. When the Gaslight Anthem closed their set on Saturday night, I thought about friends who I’ve lost, but I didn’t feel sad. It was a joyous occasion, a celebration. In that moment, I was so happy to be there, in that field, with the Gaslight Anthem. But the Gaslight Anthem weren’t the headliners that night, and they weren’t the reason that I was in that field. I was there for Avail.

Objectively speaking, Avail should not be headlining over the Gaslight Anthem in 2023. They probably should’ve never been able to headline over the Gaslight Anthem, except for maybe in like 2006, the tiny window of time before the Gaslight Anthem released their debut album Sink Or Swim and before Avail stopped playing shows altogether. If you go by the imperfect metric of Spotify monthly listeners, the Gaslight Anthem are more than 20 times as popular as Avail. If you go by the even-more-imperfect metric of how good bands are at playing their songs onstage, the differential is about the same. But this is Richmond, and things are different in Richmond. Here, this is Avail’s show.

It’s literally Avail’s show — the second edition of what will hopefully be a longstanding annual tradition. Last year, the reunited Avail held their first Over The James mini-fest on Brown’s Island in Richmond. The James is the river that runs through Richmond, and Over The James is arguably Avail’s best album, so we’re dealing with extreme levels of home-court advantage. With that in mind, there’s no band that could conceivably headline over Avail at their own show. Hot Water Music couldn’t headline over Avail at Over The James. Rancid couldn’t do it. Neither could Jawbreaker. I can’t think of any other remotely big bands who would even make sense on that bill.

Avail are a special band, and they’re especially special in Richmond. Avail started in Northern Virginia in the late ’80s, but they were all living in Richmond by 1990, and they flew the city’s flag as high as they could for the next 17 years. When I was 16, I saw Avail in Washington, DC, and it’s still the best live show that I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve been chasing the feeling of that show ever since then; it’s one of the reasons I write this column. At that 1995 show, Avail kept shouting out the people who’d driven up from Richmond. Until I moved to Virginia, I didn’t realize how many of their songs are named after parks or corners or landmarks in town. If you’ve been living with those songs for your whole life, it’s a trip to drive into town and recognize every highway sign from Avail’s lyrics or songs titles.

Avail were a hardcore band, at least on some level, but they didn’t sound like any other hardcore band. They sang massive barrel-chested choruses that hit at odd angles and arrived at odd intervals. They could play as fast and loud as anyone, but their greatest moments were howling, roaring singalongs that often weren’t even proper choruses. Those hooks would just crash in from nowhere, and they would overwhelm you. If the band had a lead instrumentalist, it would probably be bassist Justin Burdick, who went by the name Gwomper and whose riffs would ring out over all those quiet moments. But I never spent much time thinking about the specific songwriting decisions that Avail made. It was the feeling. They were a band who made me feel things.

Avail were a word-of-mouth band in a pre-internet era when that meant actual words coming out of actual mouths. I first encountered them on a mixtape from a cool older friend, and I bet a lot of people first heard them the same way. In the ’90s, Avail played gigantic shows to frenzied crowds, and they must’ve fielded the same major-label offers as every other big punk band of the era, but they never took the bait. It’s hard to imagine a version of Avail that was bigger, tighter, or more professional than the one we got. They were always supposed to be at least a little bit of a mess. That was baked in. It was evident even in the makeup of the band. The most visible member of Avail wasn’t Gwomper, and it wasn’t lead singer Tim Barry, as commanding of a presence as he was. Instead, it was a guy named Beau Beau who didn’t play an instrument and rarely sang. Beau was credited as the “cheerleader,” and his thing was to jump around and rile up the pit, sometimes with props. (When Hulk Hands hit the market, they became a big part of the Avail live experience.)

In the ’00s, the crowds got smaller, and Avail stopped recording and finally seemed to lose interest altogether. Tim Barry became a gritty acoustic singer-songwriter, and that’s still his main job. The other guys did other things. Beau Beau was a bartender in Richmond for the longest time. If you want to see him get really pissed off, ask him about Yelp reviews. (Someone told me that Beau Beau is living in Costa Rica now. He dated the wrestler Lita for a long time before she was famous. Interesting guy.) For me and for plenty of others, Avail became a treasured memory after the band broke up. They said they would never reunite and then, suddenly, they changed their minds. In 2019, Avail played two reunion shows in Richmond, selling out a bigger venue than they could’ve ever played during their time as a band. I went to the first of those shows. Once again, I felt things.

When Avail announced those reunion shows, it wasn’t clear whether the reunion would become a regular thing, but that’s what it’s become, at least for now. (There are rumors that this past Over The James festival will be the last Avail show. I hope those rumors are wrong.) After reuniting, Avail toured a little bit, and they played some festivals. In 2020, a Chicago show had to be called off at the last possible moment because COVID had rolled into town. If I remember right, the bookers were actually letting people in the door before they canceled that show. When live shows once again became a possibility, Avail were still out there. Last year, they held the first Over The James in Richmond, and they played with a few contemporaries (Quicksand, Cave In) and a few bands who came from their specific branch of the DIY tree (Ceremony, Screaming Females, the ex-Pg. 99 band Terminal Bliss). I was out of town for that show, but it went so well that they ran it back. I hope it’s now a regular thing.

Onstage at Over The James, the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon seemed psyched that his band could still play a show like this: “It’s not that we don’t like the jets and Bruce Springsteen. We do. You should come.” But, Fallon explained, the Gaslight Anthem had learned to be a band by watching bands like Avail. Guys like Bruce Springsteen didn’t represent something attainable to Fallon and his friends. Instead, it was Avail and the other bands on the bill who made that musician life even seem possible. Later on in the night, as Tim Barry was thanking everyone who made the show possible, he reeled off the names of all the bands on the bill, and he shrugged and chuckled as he got to “the fuckin’ Gaslight Anthem” — as if to wonder at the mere fact that Avail could get the Gaslight Anthem to open for them. From where I was sitting, though, that was never a question. Avail were the unquestioned main attraction. The Gaslight Anthem were a bonus.

All the other bands were bonuses, too. In an attempt to get around the looming storm, which I didn’t know about, the show started early this year, and I missed two reunited Richmond bands, power-metallers Dragonship and pioneering screamo expressionists City Of Caterpillar. I got there just in time to see another local institution. Strike Anywhere are Richmond’s Propagandhi — the pop-punk band who’s been making sloganeering political music for just about forever. I used to be vaguely intimidated by that band, but now there’s something almost admirably quaint about their persistence. They mean it, and they’ve always meant it. If they haven’t made the world a less vampiric place, it’s not for lack of trying.

Snapcase were once intimidating, too. The Buffalo band was a big part of the early Victory Records roster, along with bands like Strife and Earth Crisis and Integrity. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t believe how heavy those bands were. Snapcase had a serrated math-rock edge to their hardcore; my friend Jason pointed out that they sound a bit like Helmet. They broke up in 2005 and then got back together a few years later, and now they play a few shows a year. They haven’t released any music since 2003. Like Avail, they’re not trying to front like they’re an active band these days. Instead, they’re just doing it for the love. They were fucking awesome at Over The James.

When I was a kid, my main impression of Snapcase was that they were scary monastic guys who scowled really hard in all their photos. But everyone gets older, and now they’re all middle-aged guys with grey hair and careers that presumably do not involve playing mosh-music. Still, they commit. They throw themselves around the stage. They crank out mean, guttural riffs. When singer Daryl Taberski notices, mid-set, that there’s “a big rock ‘n’ roll screen” over to the side of the stage, he seems a little bummed out about it: “That’s fucked up! You lose a little crust-punk street cred with that screen there.” Taberski tells the crowd that Snapcase played a warmup show the previous night in New Jersey with younger hardcore bands — Spaced, Wreckage, Excide — and that this festival was very, very different. But Taberski still gets down off the stage and over the barricade to scream “Caboose” in the pit, with the people.

Taberski wasn’t wrong. The vibe at Over The James was light years removed from your typical basement show. Avail were always a subculture-uniting band, and their shows would bring in every different tribe who fit anywhere under the punk rock umbrella. When they get back together a few decades later, that makes for fascinating people-watching. Plenty of the people who would’ve been terrors in the pit in the ’90s showed up with beach chairs and picnic blankets. There were also lots and lots of guys with big beards, a few of which were braided. I truly hope the “Rich Men North Of Richmond” guy wasn’t in the crowd, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he was.

I saw some of the same faces that I see at a lot of hardcore shows, but I also saw people who probably haven’t been to a hardcore show in years. There were crusties, metalheads, pop-punk fans. There were kids there, but the kids plainly came with their parents. There were lots and lots of small children in ear-protecting headphones. After Snapcase finished, a voice came over the speakers telling everyone to evacuate the island, since the lightning was coming in. Most of those kids didn’t come back.

But some did. When Avail finally came out to headline — Beau Beau waving a literal Richmond flag — I was behind a dad who had a daughter up on his shoulders, and who held her up there for the entire show. This kid was maybe seven or eight, and she was not that small. You ever held an eight-year-old on your shoulders for any length of time? After five minutes, it’s agony. This guy would sometimes lift her off for a second and readjust things — he had a backpack, too — but then he’d put her back up there. And she was having a great time, pumping her little fist along with all of it. She wasn’t too far from the pit, and she never got scared.

I’m glad a little kid can get something out of Avail, that it’s not just a sense-memory thing for the middle-aged punks out there. But even if it was just a sense-memory thing for middle-aged punks like me, it would’ve still been a massive night. I was there with other dads, guys my age with their own Avail stories, and we had a fucking blast. Singing along with songs that you’ve known for decades, with friends and strangers who might as well be friends, is one of the best things about getting older. It makes you feel a certain affection for the gawky teenage self who first encountered these songs and who grabbed onto them like a shipwrecked sailor on driftwood. It makes you feel good about who you were then and who you are now.

Avail were a mess. I mean that in the best way. Even when they were on the road full-time, Avail were never a polished, practiced band. They brought chaos with them everywhere. Onstage at Brown’s Island, the musicians in the band sometimes sounded like they were all playing on different tempos. When the horn players from the No BS Brass Band come out to play with Avail, things get even more unhinged. But this didn’t hurt the show. If anything, it only made it more perfect and immediate. The glorious, anthemic moments hit even harder when everything snapped into focus. And if Avail had been a streamlined machine up there, they wouldn’t have felt like themselves. They would’ve felt like a cover band.

Beau Beau still uses props — mostly big waterguns this time. Tim Barry still claps his hands and dresses like the realest dude in the world — camo cargo pants and a Conway Twitty shirt with the sleeves cut off this time. Lots of children watched from the side of the stage, most of them presumably being related to people in the band. I did what I always do at Avail shows, which is to stand near the pit and sing along really loud and then rush the pit the moment they play “FCA.” It always feels amazing. This time, that pit was welcoming and low-impact. An Avail pit in 2023 is not not dangerous — there is such a thing as Dad Strength — but most of these people were not swinging for the fences. When I emerged, I was sweaty and out of breath, but I was unbruised.

I can’t believe I get to write about Avail in the present tense. When Avail first got back together in 2019, it was a mad scramble to get tickets. You didn’t know whether this reunion would last or whether it was just as ephemeral as your own memories. But now Avail are back — not as an active recording concern, but as a local institution who will come back and play this island with their friends once a year. Once upon a time, Avail were a band that built a sense of community in the people who loved them. The band went away, but the community stayed. Now, the band is back, and we’re still here.

We’re at the end of hardcore’s summer festival season, and nostalgia almost always plays a role in those big all-day shows. Philly’s This Is Hardcore fest always has an undercard full of exciting young bands, but it also books scene elders as its headliners. This year, that meant Bane, Gorilla Biscuits, and Integrity — three bands who go all the way back to the ’80s and ’90s. LA’s Sound And Fury fest, which was the same weekend as Over The James, is always more forward-thinking. This year, though, the Sound And Fury lineup was dominated by comebacks from bands a generation or two younger than Avail: Twitching Tongues, Minority Unit, Soul Search, a surprise Ceremony set. Cold World, a band that hasn’t released anything since 2014, headlined the first night, while the festival’s big closing act was Trapped Under Ice, back at full strength with their classic lineup.

You can’t call Trapped Under Ice a nostalgia act. For one thing, their drummer is Brendan Yates, and he’s also the singer for the biggest hardcore band in the world. For another, TUI are led by Justice Tripp, and Angel Du$t, his other band, are one of the most exciting things on the hardcore landscape right now. It’s been six years since the last TUI record, but the band feels like our greatest point of consensus. The videos from their Sound And Fury set are crazy, and I’m sure it’ll be just as nuts when they headline FYA next year. You could look at the continuing prominence of Trapped Under Ice as a sign that hardcore has atrophied, that younger bands simply can’t reach that level. But I don’t think TUI are kicking ass at anyone’s expense. I think we’re just looking at a world where nothing ever really dies, where a semi-retired band can still cause absolute mayhem in the right circumstances. As an old man who still feels things at Avail shows, I love it.

Angel Du$t’s last album, 2021’s Yak: A Collection Of Truck Songs, was a record of weird and experimental studio-pop jams. I loved it, but it didn’t sound like hardcore, at least to my ears. But Justice Tripp is way more of an authority than me, and he gets the final word on this: “If you see me playing love songs on an acoustic guitar, you just saw hardcore. You don’t get to decide.” Hell yeah. And with that in mind, Angel Du$t’s next album is shaping up to be an absolute motherfucker. All of the advance singles are bangers, but this one, with its frantic speed and its headrush hooks, is my favorite. It sounds like little kids mauling each other in the ballpit at the indoor playground of hell’s Chick-Fil-A. Justice remains one of the world’s greatest frontmen, in any genre of music, and that guy is not taking his foot off the throttle. [From Brand New Soul, out 9/8 on Pop Wig Records.]

Joey Chiarmonte is a fearsome Long Island mosher with a long resume of heavy-ass bands like Typecaste. He’s currently threatening to become famous by singing sweet, melodic, feelings-first songs as the frontman of Koyo, a band that started out as an offbrand experiment for a guy who’s probably got at least three Hatebreed riffs running through his mind at all times. Blood Runs Cold is Chiarmonte’s new Koyo side project, but it’s also Chiarmonte working in the genre that’s always been home to him. These days, when he gets the opportunity to scream and roar over bag-of-anvils guitars, there’s a palpable sense of unburdening. This guy has to be on his best behavior all the time these days! He can’t just wade out into the pit and decapitate people whenever he feels like it! So when he gets to screech over music that turns ribcages into dust, he makes it count. [From Blood Runs Cold EP, out now on DAZE.]

Blood Runs Cold by Blood Runs Cold

There’s deep tragedy embedded in the entire existence of Fugitive. This is the band that Power Trip guitarist Blake Ibanez started after the sudden and bewildering death of his bandmate Riley Gale. Maybe Fugitive would’ve started if Gale was still here, or maybe some versions of these songs would’ve become Power Trip songs instead. Nobody really knows, and it’s not our business, but that’s still a hell of a lot of baggage for a new band to carry. The amazing thing about Fugitive is that they’re carrying it. When I hear Fugitive, a little part of me gets sad, just as it does when I hear Power Trip these days. But these Fugitive songs are such absolute ass-kickers that the sadness never lasts. I can’t remain bummed out when I’m hearing these savage berserker riffs. They’re too life-affirming for that. [From “Blast Furnace” b/w “Standoff” single, out now on 20 Buck Spin.]

The meme of Harms Way singer James Pligge skanking is so fun and so pervasive that it sometimes threatens to overshadow everything else that the Chicago band has ever done. When you’re built like a tatted-up human brick wall and when you perform with that much physicality, it’s just the kind of thing that can happen. But the meme can’t obscure just how frantic and punishing and cerebral Harms Way’s music is. This jagged hunk of shrapnel goes a long way toward correcting the record. [From Common Suffering, out 9/29 on Metal Blade Records.]

This is the first song in a decade from the Killer, kings of Chicago mosh. The Killer haven’t broken up, and they play live every once in a while, so it’s not like their muscles have atrophied. But it’s still amazing to hear a once-dormant band come back with something as beastly and overwhelming as this. Maybe when you’ve been quiet for that long, you have to knee the world in the jaw that much harder, to make up for lost time. [From 2023 Demo, self-released, out now.]

2023 Demo by The Killer

I took my 11-year-old on a road trip to New York last weekend, and he was tired the whole time. I understand that. It’s an exhausting place. He kept asking for more cans of Monster energy drink, and that probably isn’t an OK thing for an 11-year-old to drink, but I kept giving it to him — partly because I wanted him to have enough gas in the tank to see the big whale room at the American Museum Of Natural History before crashing out for the day, and partly because of my suspicion that early exposure to Monster might lead him to make vast, soaring, demonic metallic hardcore like the epic roaring through-canyons shit that I hear from Vancouver’s A Mourning Star. It’s taken a lot of sponsorship money for me to immediately associate this kind of music with Monster, but all that marketing money has paid off. [From A Reminder Of The Wound Unhealed, out 10/13 on DAZE.]

A Reminder Of The Wound Unhealed by A Mourning Star

The members of Philly’s Open City have been in so many different bands, and some of those bands are straight-up legends: Lifetime! Ceremony! Kid Dynamite! Titus Andronicus! Paint It Black! Ted Leo’s Pharmacists! These are musicians with a vast command of punk rock history, and they’ve played a significant role in that history. Now, they’re out here making galloping noise-rock ragers about how the concept of ownership is destroying the world, and it’s absolutely fucking glorious. New Open City music is a rare thing; the band’s first album came out six years ago. When a new record comes out, it deserves your attention, especially when it leads off with a gutpunch like this one. [From Hands In The Honey Jar, out 10/6 on Get Better Records.]

Hands In The Honey Jar by Open City

Are Pest Control a metal band? Does hardcore get to claim dominion over all of crossover thrash? I don’t really think I care. One member of feral Leeds riff-beasts Pest Control, guitarist Joseph Kerry, also plays in NYHC-style head-stompers Big Cheese, but a bunch of other members are also in the death metal crew Mortuary Spawn. Still, Pest Control make music that’s designed for moshing, and if a band does that, then I get to write about that band in this column. I make the rules, and I just decided that them’s the rules. Pest Control’s sound is so hostile and grimy, so genuinely disgusting, that the ugliness takes on its own kind of beauty. They sound like circle-pitting when you’re knee-deep in primordial soup. [Stand-alone single, self-released, out now.]

Right now, we’re staring at a strange and beautiful new world where Militarie Gun’s “Do It Faster” can be considered a legit song-of-the-summer contender, at least among the readers of this website. With that in mind, I am hoping to see huge things from Squint, a St. Louis band who’s only been around for a little more than a year. Squint’s songs are fast and mean and just unbelievably catchy, and they’re only getting catchier. When you play “All” loud enough, it feels like being stampeded by a herd of elephants, if the elephants were the reincarnated souls of great power-pop writers. As in: Alex Chilton is back, and he’s crushing your skull without even realizing it. I don’t know whether Squint have any interest in helping major corporations sell chalupas, but if they do, then someone should pay them a lot of money to do that. [Stand-alone single, out now on Sunday Drive Records.]

“Chlorophyll disciples! Quench with sun’s lick, sate the earth for its eminence!” I am not entirely certain what all these words mean, but I’m pretty sure it’s a call for plants to rise up and declare war against humanity for the crime of agriculture. That’s the plot of the movie The Happening. I fucking love it. I’m not looking to die anytime soon, but if I get murdered by vengeful vegetation, then that’s a pretty good way to go out. Wreathe is a new band with four members of London stadium-crust doom-prophets Morrow, and this towering D-beat trudge is exactly the type of thing that I want to hear when I’m in a room full of people who look like Mad Max movie extras and smell like ass. It’s a good reminder: Sometimes, ambition doesn’t mean you’re trying to make money or cultural impact. Sometimes, ambition means that you’re trying to write anthems of opposition for the great floral wars to come. [From The Land Is Not An Idle God EP, out now on Alerta Antifascista Records.]

The Land Is Not An Idle God by Wreathe

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[From Brand New Soul, out 9/8 on Pop Wig Records.][From Blood Runs Cold EP, out now on DAZE.][From “Blast Furnace” b/w “Standoff” single, out now on 20 Buck Spin.][From Common Suffering, out 9/29 on Metal Blade Records.][From 2023 Demo, self-released, out now.][From A Reminder Of The Wound Unhealed, out 10/13 on DAZE.][From Hands In The Honey Jar, out 10/6 on Get Better Records.][Stand-alone single, self-released, out now.][Stand-alone single, out now on Sunday Drive Records.][From The Land Is Not An Idle God EP, out now on Alerta Antifascista Records.]

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