Arts

​AJJ, various folk-rock bands bring passionate music to Sett

AJJ maintains a high consistency of lyrical despondency, ironic optimism and tactless candidness in their music. Above is Ben Gallaty, bassist for the band.

If you’re in the know to any degree on the folk-punk-rock scene, last week’s performances at The Sett was the place to be. Beneath the umbrella of a painfully niche subgenre identity and amid the first round of anxiety-inducing midterms, students and Madisonians alike congregated around the crowd-control barriers — beers and cell phones in hand — to break out into song and dance with some of the biggest names in this snippet of the musical oeuvre.

An electric chitter-chatter pulsed back and forth between the walls of the concert venue as the crowd ordered drinks, perused the merch table and generated hype around their respective social media circles (this author included). It’s not every day you’re visited and sung to by a Grammy Award-winning artist, nor is it every day you have a one-on-one exchange — if only passing — with microcosmic giants who single-handedly changed the musical landscape. After all, the evening featured not one, not two, but three headlining acts, each excellent in their own right.

First, there was Shellshag, a New York duo comprised of Shell & Shag. Armed only with the electric guitar, some floors toms, a snare and an artistic leather belt laced with percussive tools, the music hall echoed with the ethereal buzz of the guitar’s soft fuzzy distortion, only to be counter-called by the low, impassioned roars of soft mallets and sticks upon a hefty drum. The duo implemented physicality in their performance, jumping around, dancing to the music and repeating that age-old catharsis of the guitarist bending over when the groove hits them deeply. The endearing and energetic first act set the bar.

Shortly thereafter, Laura Stevenson took the stage by storm, not with the aggressive, demanding attitude one might expect, but rather in the quiet and soft control of her surroundings. Stevenson, former keyboardist for renowned ska-punk collective Bomb the Music Industry!, has released four solo albums thus far. Paired with a light show of blues, purples and golds, the audience swam under the soft-rocking waves of Stevenson’s comforting voice and the contrasting, sharp punches of the treble-laden equalization of her Telecaster. Her bubbliness, riding in the wake of Shellshag’s barreling momentum, ended the first two acts with only upward promises of an even better main event.

The third and final opening act, Kimya Dawson, was comparatively minimal. Dawson, a Grammy-winning artist for her work on the soundtrack to 2009’s “Juno” sat beneath a spotlight with little more than her voice and an acoustic guitar. This performative blend of plugged/unplugged musicianship held just as much heart as her predecessors; this act, however, truly emphasized acoustics over electric rock.

Finding a blend between a cappella ballads of anthropomorphized animals, politically-dense lyrics and reflective musings with the guitar in-tow, Dawson’s performance was more reminiscent of sitting around a campfire with some friends than any mood the other acts crafted. While a touching and peaceful moment in the night, Dawson played for nearly an hour; in and of itself, that’s not unusual for an opening act. However, at this point in the concert, nearly two and a half hours had passed since Shellshag entered. A palpable sleepiness and restlessness washed over the crowd.

By now, it had been a net three hours since the concert began. Anticipation was at an all-time high, even if exhaustion was seeping in. This bore no problem, as the main event of the night rushed the stage, announcing their name through the cacophony of explosive applause: AJJ.

Formed in 2004 out of Phoenix, AZ, the group formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad has had nothing short of a reputable career. Carrying with them a mixed air of sadness, confidence and existentialism, they have explored various styles of the folk-punk-rock scene throughout their six studio albums. AJJ maintains a high consistency of lyrical despondency, ironic optimism and tactless candidness.

Of course, now, the crowd had come back into full swing, greeting AJJ’s leadman Sean Bonnette with adrenaline-pumping allure, and the group reciprocating with an astounding display of controlled, yet emotive release. Punchy percussion, bass-bleeding keys, the whisper of the electric cello and the euphony of an acoustic guitar and an upright bass all aggregated beneath the crackly and determined timbre of Bonnette’s vocals. The band played some classics, such as “Linda Ronstadt” and “Fucc the Devil,” each being met with the sways and rocks of a crowd singing along in audio-emotional unity. And yes, on the punkier songs like “White Worms,” mild mosh pits and self-contained catalysts of musical energy jumped and hooped and hollered in the wholesome excitement only live music can provide.

The rhythm members stepped off as Bonnette engaged with the audience in a heartfelt set of solo acoustic tunes, most prominently, perhaps, his “Night of Long Knives,” which directly and explicitly targets figures of the American Republican party. The group came together for a few more tunes, joking with the crowd and laughing along with each other to anecdotes of various college venues. Finally, at around 10:45 PM, Bonnette set the guitar aside and unclipped the microphone from its stand to perform one of AJJ’s most beloved pieces, “Big Bird.” Beginning with an a cappella assortment of anxieties, Bonnette and the crowd sang together with astonishing authenticity, as if the realities of each person’s weights slid up out of their shoulders and evaporated into the dissipating fog. The band crashed down with a hefty emotional release, the drums pounding harder than they had and the bass-bleeding synth keys screaming with all their might.

As this author scanned the crowd, he witnessed islands of men and women, groups of friends and lovers paying no attention to those around them, let alone each other; nearly every audience member was fully and totally encompassed in the tunnel vision of the lyrical anguish-peace dichotomy. The Sett was flooded with a deafening white noise of goosebumps, energy, sweat and song that ranks highly on the “had-to-be-there” scale.

The song came to a crashing stop. Applause exploded once again. AJJ departed the stage, then returned for a brief encore. The lights descended into the black backdrop and the crowd dispersed throughout Union South and into the muggy Madison evening, the impetus of passion of the night’s music and the support of these folk-punk-rock superstars following behind them.

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