By Chris McCoy
The tenth edition of Gonerfest found the annual celebration of garage punk looking both behind at the genre’s history and ahead at the music’s next evolutionary steps. Wreckless Eric, the Cosmic Psychos and Mudhoney made a forceful case that age ain’t nothing but a number; Gonerfest favorites like Quintron, Tyvek, and Digital Leather were worthy of their reputations; and newcomers like Ex-Cult proved that there is still plenty of life left in punk, garage, or whatever it is we’re calling the rock and roll these days.
There were plenty of firsts in this tenth edition of the festival. Guitar Wolf, the Japanese band who graced the first Goner single and who are still going strong 20 years later, provided a couple of them. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the titanic set they played in the gazebo at the corner of Cooper and Young spawned the first ever mosh pit and crowd surfing event to occur at that storied corner, a sound and sight which bewildered tourists who were disgorged from a bus in the middle of rock Armageddon.
This is the first Gonerfest to be held at the new Crosstown location of the Hi-Tone, and I have to say that, nostalgia for the old band shed notwithstanding, the new digs provided a superior experience in every respect.
Tyvek’s tight, impassioned performance was followed by Quintron’s amazing techno swamp organ headlining set, which made for the best hat trick in the fest.
I missed Friday afternoon at the Buccaneer, but the Hi-Tone show kicked off with an atomic but all too brief set from Memphis’ own True Sons Of Thunder, who brought the noise big time:
The rest of the night was high energy and high quality. Nick Diablo brought the latest droney, glam-tinged incarnation of his long-running project Viva L’American Death Ray Music back to Memphis from New York; Nashville’s Cheap Time snarled through their set of no-frills punk; Head was all straight ahead, Ramones-y energy; and the always entertaining Timmy Vulgar brought out the pyrotechnic ray gun for a psychedelic Human Eye romp. The much anticipated headlining set from Mudhoney lived up to the hype, as the Seattle legends played a set that spanned their 20 year history, generously salted with their classics, like “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” and “You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)” and even an out-of-left-field cover of Ministry’s 1988 industrial dance anthem “Stigmata”.
Saturday’s afternoon blowout at Murphy’s was a succession of great moments with 11 bands trading off between two stages while the smell of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers floated in the air. I always seem to discover some great new sounds on Gonerfest Saturday afternoon, and this year it was two bands that couldn’t have been more different. Melbourne, Australia’s Cuntz’ vicious punk onslaught was the hardest rocking set of the afternoon. Then the Milwaukee band Sugar Stems went in completely the opposite direction with some classically constructed, Cheap Trick-esque power pop that was a welcome respite from all of the testosterone on display. Later, Gonerfest vets Digital Leather got the outside crowd moving with synth-punk and attitude. But it was Harlan T. Bobo’s latest band The Fuzz that really stole the show on the outside stage. Battling sound problems, Harlan’s brought a raft of new material that brought his prodigious songwriting talent to bear on two-guitar punk. Judging from the number of people I saw with copies of The Fuzz’s debut records tucked under their arm, people liked it. A lot. Here’s his cover of the Devo classic “Uncontrollable Urge”.
I have a very low tolerance for solo guys with acoustic guitars, but British punk legend Wreckless Eric’s mixture of wry storytelling, classic songs, and raw charisma was the perfect way to end the afternoon as the sun went down. At least we thought it was over. As the party broke up, a band called Babes which had set up surreptitiously on the side of Tuckers Hot Wings the street started playing, and people scrambled up the side of the hill to check them out. Then, Memphis garage soul combo The Sheiks came roaring into the Murphy’s parking lot in the back of an old pickup truck and blazed through some songs. The dueling guerilla gigs, combined with Central High School homecoming parties at Minglewood Hall and 1588 Madison, made for a surreal, only-in-Memphis scene.
The survivors of the previous 72 hours gathered at The Hi-Tone for the final night’s throwdown. The penultimate band Destruction Unit provided some of the most intense moments of the entire fest with a three-guitar attack produced a roar that was as layered as it was punishing. Imagine if My Bloody Valentine had MC5’s rhythm section and you’ll have some idea of what Destruction Unit sounded like.
The headlining act was The Cosmic Psychos, and they did not disappoint. The Australian legends didn’t just take a much-deserved victory lap, they killed it with a relentless, self-assured set that whipped the tired crowd into a frenzy. The pounding, rock solid beat provided by bassist and frontman Ross Knight provided a perfect foundation for Mad Macka McKeering’s wah wah washed guitar shenanigans. It was a testament the longevity and power of scuzzy garage punk that summed up the festival and the scene that spawned it.