A great number of strange factors converged and led me to seeing legendary punk icon Ian MacKaye performing with his band the Evens at the Plant Zero Art Space. “How many of you have seen a show here?” Mackaye asked before kicking things off. There was a bit of mumbling. “How many have been to a wedding reception here.” Hands were raised. Mine included. The man was dressed precisely as I had expected – black sneakers and tall white socks, cargo pants and a maroon t shirt. And, of course, he was hairless. In fact, I’m fairly certain that, outside the damn inescapable coercions of age, Mr. MacKaye hasn’t changed in the slightest since around 1989. There’s some definite comfort in that. The crowd about fit the mold I’d imagined too. There were your worn-out but in-shape guys who had seen hardcore get born and weren’t about to let a few gray hairs in between the rest of the brown buzz-cut talk shit to them, your former college radio DJ’s who left Jesus for Fugazi in the mid-80’s, and of course your modern punks, be they straight-edge or crusty or bent or hipsters or whatever, all looking to Ian as a guiding light, or for validation.
Despite all my premonitions, I had no idea what the music was going to sound like. Like any good adolescent, I’d listened to my fair share of 13 Songs and Repeater, even some of Minor Threat’s best material on particularly angry days. I read in some magazine that the Evens were a “quiet band”, even acoustic. This led me to believing the project would be a significant departure from MacKaye’s past endeavors. Maybe something more folksy? The set-up was quaint: a short stage draped in black with a small a red throw carpet in the center. Two living-room style lamps flanked the center. Drummer Amy Farina sat back right, and MacKaye was on a stool a little to the left. Seeing him sitting there, my mind flooded with old grainy images of a younger soul galavanting around the stage, leaping into the crowd, screaming, jaws wide, a distinct disdain for the future flowing from his eyes, almost black. Now, crouched over, baritone guitar in his hands, he looked frail.
And then the music started.
The Evens are not a particularly “quiet” band. Farina’s snare shots rang out like a nailgun in the wide hall. MacKaye, though, was something else. Wheeling to-and-fro, wrestling like a bound lunatic, he took that stool that aged him in my mind and made it a tool to multiply his own presence and power. Swinging and swinging, up on two legs, then one, never losing balance, he attacked his instrument with a kind of precise abandon that would have made Duane Dension proud, or Lou Reed even. Lineage-wise, the band shares the most common ground with 90’s riot grrl groups like Sleater-Kinney - furious but impeccably structured punk music packed with plenty of smart vocal harmonies. MacKaye’s voice has stood the test of time, clearly, but Farina’s got chops of her own, and the two work together as a good team.
While some of the songs are more personal, there’s a bit of social commentary in each and every one, whether MacKaye’s singing about the slow deterioration of his home city, D.C., or the ethical dilemma that is drone combat. Hearing songs so blatant with their message took me aback a little. Of course, that’s what he’s always been writing. I think we have a tendency to write that kind of high-concept material off as childish or simplistic, but it occurred to me that hardly anyone is doing it. It’s almost unfashionable. I’m glad there’s one guy still out there willing to just put his personal philosophy into song without hiding it behind carefully constructed, or even senseless (depending on the composer), imagery.
The show impressed me enough that I bought a five dollar copy of the band's most recent record, The Odds. I’d recommend checking it out. It could be one of the most underappreciated albums of 2012. I’d also like to mention that, after the show, Ian took the time to individual speak to what seemed like every single person in the whole venue. It was a lot of people. Talk about down to earth.