Written by: Melissa Muenz, Special to CC2K
Any flesh and blood lover of music will remember the band, the song, the cassette tape that first blew his or her mind. The moment is so present and so palpable, you can almost touch it. It’s like falling in love for the very first time; you are intoxicated, and never in your life has anything spoken to you so clearly and with such immediacy. You are convinced that you have discovered a secret that no one else knows about.
On a Tuesday I travel to Empire, a small club in Sterling, VA, and when I go inside, I encounter a small group of people who know about the secret.
For most people, this feeling happens when they are teenagers because teenagers are ready to fall in love with almost anything. When I was a teenager, I spent a few years taken by pop punk. The old church five blocks from my childhood home in Pittsburgh was converted into a concert venue in 2003. They named it Mr. Smalls, and at the time, it felt like my very own. I saw all of the local acts, and while they were all playing the same power chords and yelling about the same youthful angst, everything felt fresh and new. Yes, I grew older, my tastes developed, and I expanded my world of music. And while music is still exciting, it’s not quite as… precious. I don’t cling to it as desperately as I did then. Now, I concern myself with whether or not something is good. Back then, I was concerned only with whether it hijacked my heart, my adrenaline, or both.
When I walk into Empire, I am transported back to Mr. Smalls in 2003. There can’t be more than twenty people there during the first act, but you get the sense that everyone there knows each other: the two guys covering Blink 182’s “Dammit” on stage, the group of young fans eagerly lined up right in front of them, the event staff. The first two acts are playing to the local crowd, and they may as well be headlining a national tour, because everyone in the room is in on the secret. The secret is about youth, about punk, about broken hearts, and about yelling “Fuck you!” It’s about making a mosh pit, even if it only consists of five people, because you don’t get whiplash yet. The songs are the same, the kids are the same, the attitude is the same. The friend I’m with makes fun of the whiny vocals, and while I’m cringing, I’m also looking around with distinct recognition.
We are here to see Wheatus. While I loved “Teenage Dirtbag” in 2000, I actually re-discovered the band in 2005. Brendan B. Brown and company have put out a studio album every few years since their debut, including The Valentine LP, which they released this past August. I wonder aloud why they didn’t choose to play one of the many similarly sized venues in DC. Sure, they would encounter an odd mix of people, including folks who are there ironically or otherwise disinterested in the band’s following albums, but I am certain I cannot be the only Wheatus fan in the metro area. Also, bodies in the door are dollars in the bank, and any type of exposure for a new record is good, right? My friend and I speculate whether or not Brown is simply comfortable living off of the royalties from “Teenage Dirtbag.”
The second act is also local. They had been broken up, but they are back together for this show only. The room loves them. At the end of their set, they ask everyone if they would come see them again, if they by chance were to play another show. The 10-15 kids straining against the stage yell affirmatively, and I remember how many times I watched nearly identical sets from high schoolers and twenty-somethings in my township. They had seemed larger than life, even if that life was just in my small corner of a small city.
Wheatus have two of their own openers on tour with them. The over 21 section is getting a little fuller, and the “Dammit” duo fills the space below the stage with erratic dancing. Late Cambrian, a trio from Brooklyn, plays catchy, well-crafted synth-rock, and with nostalgia for physical media, I buy one of their CDs.
I’m loosened up, and definitely looking forward to seeing Wheatus. I streamed Suck Fony on their website in 2005, and was not only surprised that they had another album, but was taken aback by how much I loved it. The songs are poppier and fuller than the tracks from their self-titled album. Some of the lyrics are outright cheeky (and meta – “We play in a band that has no fans,” Brown sings on “American in Amsterdam”). The songs have a little more melodrama on TooSoonMonsoon, and you can hear a certain level of intimacy both in the lyrics and the guitar. Brendan Brown loves rock music, and even on the sad songs he sounds happy to play.
The concept of the sad storyteller indulging the pleasure of sharing his pain is perhaps one of the most fun things about enjoying art, and the young music fan understands this on a primal level. I anticipate the band’s set, and start to feel that excitement. This show in particular – Wheatus, in a small town club with just enough people to feel like a community – is like enjoying a secret. Did you know that Wheatus had a new album? Probably not. My love of these songs is something that I and a select few punks in Sterling, VA can understand. The intimacy and the awe take me back.
As they take the stage, it becomes clear that I was foolish to think Wheatus would concern themselves with getting more bodies in the door. Brown is less a frontman promoting a new album, and more a very popular host at a house party. The band immediately tests their sound by teasing a riff from “Dirtbag.” They are here to please, and Brown quickly establishes that their set will be driven by requests. By the end of the night, they will only have played two tracks from The Valentine LP.
The majority of set consists of songs from the debut album, and while I’m somewhat disappointed to not hear as many power pop songs, tracks like “Hey, Mr. Brown” and “Truffles” translate well live. They are rougher and faster, and it’s clearer than ever that Brown approaches rock music with both reverence and abandon. The band plays two covers during the set, including “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. Brown happily relays that the boy band has been covering “Dirtbag,” lending more credence to our aforementioned suspicion about the lucrative loyalties surrounding the song.
Based on how the bar area filled up, it’s likely that others made the drive to Sterling from DC. However, the floor is still monopolized by the punk fans from earlier. They are yelling, jumping, fist-pumping, and eagerly calling out requests. They are enjoying Wheatus in a way that the over 21 crowd has long since forgotten, and I am grateful to be watching a band that is both good, and has hijacked my heart.
The vibe of “Teenage Dirtbag” is a thread that seems to go through a good many Wheatus songs. “This is a song about not getting married,” Brown quipped when he introduced “Lemonade,” a song lamenting the aftermath of an infidelity. The song is sad instead of angry, and even as the wronged party, Brown is self-deprecating: “I always knew I’d end up with no one/And know I know that the end is near/Cause you’ve replaced me.” The tracks “Anyway” and “Desperate Songs” are polite inquiries that essentially say, “I know I am a screwed up freak, but I was hoping that we could still be in love.” It’s the sentiment that drew me into those angsty songs in 2003, and it’s the feeling that makes every teenage outcast fall into the seductive arms of whichever band they first worship. It’s the magic that happens when you’re about to burst, and for the first time, you hear a voice say, “I know. It’s OK. It will be our secret.”
The band closes the set with “Dirtbag,” the track that perfectly typifies this universal experience. It’s a song about being a teenager, falling for a girl, and falling for a band. When Brown reaches for the higher octaves to reveal that yes, can you even believe it, she does like you, I feel the satisfaction of the lonely teen underdog winning at long last. We are all teenage dirtbags, and it’s a good secret to share.
“Sound of silver talk to me
Makes you want to feel like a teenager
Until you remember the feelings of
A real life emotional teenager
Then you think again”
-James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem