“Kind of a Strange Weekend” – Anniversary Fest 2k16
Double Decker. Square of Opposition. Whether you’re like me and you’ve spent your entire life in and around the Lehigh Valley – born in Bethlehem, raised in Phillipsburg, son – or you’re a recent transplant to the area, if your interests run along the lines of record collecting or desperate sing-a-long rock songs that, just for a moment, might allow you to feel like you belong, Square of Opp and Double Decker are names you will have heard. Should have heard. OUGHT TO have heard.
For the few novitiates among us, Double Decker Records is located at 808 Saint John St. in Allentown and carries what many will tell you is the most complete and most satisfying collection of punk records in the area. They celebrated their 20th anniversary this weekend. Square of Opposition Records is the brain child of Lehigh Valley punk warlord Chris Reject. Celebrating fifteen years of operation – err, opposition? – Square of Opp is responsible for a good majority of the best records to have come out of the Valley since 2001. Go buy one or a few Square of Opp releases at Double Decker and we’ll all hug, okay?
It’s funny, when you think about it, that two of the local scene’s hardest working, pioneering members would choose to celebrate their accomplishments and longevity by creating a whole bunch of additional hard work for themselves on top of everything else they’re busy with. Three days. Two venues. Three stages. 36 bands (by my count), many with members coming from spots as far as Texas and Raleigh to play the weekend – not to mention, all of the imports from Philly. Then throw records in the mix. And tattoos. And donuts. And mini-golf. And a number of other vendors who took the opportunity to promote themselves to a cross section of all-ages local music fans.
In booking the lineup for the weekend, the mastermind Reject managed to find a balance between rising local artists (like Broski, Becca Maye, and Pretty Lousy), longtime associates (like Christopher Diem, John Galm, and Emmy Award-winning duo Carly Commando/Tom Patterson), and stalwarts like Plow United. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for many Lehigh Valley punks, this was a collection of bands that seemed to materialize out of a dream. For Chris Reject, it was made possible because of what he has put in to the scene over the last decade and a half. Jeff Hersch, guitarist/vocalist for the band Casual (who performed at “Prefest” on Friday at St. Bernard’s in Bethlehem, and whose debut album was released on Sqaure of Opp), summed it up appropriately when I asked him about Reject.
“He’s so hard-working and does so much for our scene,” Hersch said. “He took a chance on Casual put out our first LP, not knowing if it would even sell out or not. He’s selfless and, of course, super talented.”
Like practically everyone involved this weekend, he was also trying to work through the hurt. It’s no secret that any fun at Anniversary Fest, from the stage to the foursquare court, was had in the shadow of mourning for Erik Petersen, a longtime fixture in the East Coast punk scene. News surfaced of the singer-songwriter’s death on Friday and hung over everything this past weekend. It’s hard to put in perspective, and harder to put into words, but I get the sense that, for many people, the place to try and come to terms with the untimely death of such a beloved figure was at the gig.
Saturday saw sets from the likes of Marge, The Headies, Glitter, Summer Vacation, and a half dozen others, alternating between the sparse stages that had been constructed on opposing sides of the room. Late in the evening, Long Island punk paragons Iron Chic brought the crowd together in a way few other bands can for Saturday night’s penultimate performance. Singer/songwriter/handsome guy Brian Rothenbeck was there in the crowd, and described their set as “cathartic”. Without directly commenting on recent events, Iron Chic did what they do best; they brought together a room full of sad and strange people to sweat and shout until their problems were gone, if only briefly.
That energy – and then some – carried over to the night’s headliner, when the largest crowd of the weekend packed an inconspicuous room usually reserved for indoor flea markets wall-to-freaking-WALL, and danced through a literal haze as fabled Lehigh Valley jangly-punks Snowing re-formed for an equally-fabled last show. It was something that no one in their right mind – who had any affection for that band, its associated acts and composite members – would have missed.
And, like the day-late, dollar-short-ass dope I am, I missed it. Yeah.
If you were there, consider yourself all kinds of blessed. If you weren’t, like I wasn’t, you should thank a guy named Pat Heine for being there with a camera, and you should cherish the video as something sacred. Something magic.
And, if that weren’t enough proof of Chris Reject’s voodoo powers, I present a second piece of evidence. Yo Man Go! – the Lehigh Valley’s equivalent to Latterman, like, eight to ten years ago – quietly re-formed to play a short, but sweet set at 5 p.m. Sunday evening. That’s either evidence that Reject is studied in the black arts, or a testament to how far members of the Lehigh Valley punk community are willing to go for their friend. It was also something I knew I couldn’t stand to miss.
Having been filled in by various friends on the events of the prior night – highlights including Iron Chic doing a Green Day cover and an incident with a smoke machine during Snowing’s climactic set – I arrived at the Merchants Square Mall just in time to catch White Pisces last few songs and get a good spot for what had, in short order, become my most anticipated set of the day.
For anyone who went to a lot of shows at Rudich Ranch back in the day, this should be one of those seminal bands on par with Snowing. Their closer, “Healing Factor”, was a purifying balm for me the way Iron Chic’s set was for Rothenbeck, and the way Snowing’s set seemed to be for so many people. The song has had a special meaning for me ever since I first heard it, standing in the back of the Rudich’s garage. Singing along – “I’ll be there for you/like you’ve always been there for me” – I felt the way I want to when I’m at a show. That is to say I felt okay. Then, I left to get beer.
A brief aside about festivals: I’m no expert or anything, but I’ve been to enough Fests to know the one thing everyone says is a must is flexibility. Expect deviations from the schedule, and accept that you’re not going to see every band you want to. I know it sucks, but pay attention to social media, and maybe you’ll catch a sudden Yo Man Go! set featuring Pat G. from Spraynard on bass. Other times, your friend will break his phone, and you’ll get drunk at a sushi place next door to the Sprint store waiting for them to get done, and you will miss a bunch of cool bands. That’s just how it happens.
Did you know almost every beer store within a convenient radius of Merchant Square Mall closes at 5 p.m. sharp? It still amazes me that liquor stores ever close at all.
Anyway, this aside is getting out of hand, so I’ll just say we bought six packs from behind the bar at the Brass Rail. Nice joint and cheap pounders, but we missed Thin Lips.
My friends and I returned with our drinks just in time to see Nona, another set of defunct-punx who have all gone on to be, or were concurrently, in equally-awesome bands. Then, I visited the boys from Heritage Tattoo in the corner of the room and put my name on the waiting list. Then, I scoped out the Audio Geography booth. They were making customized 7”s with two songs of the customer’s choice, picked from the Square of Opp catalogue.
After that, it got thrashy. Philly hardcore savants Soul Glo ripped the crowd to shreds, reassembled us, and ripped us back up, laughing righteously all the while. Guitarist Ruben Polo played merciless riffs, which were buoyed by airtight musicianship from his compatriots and beautiful, eviscerating screams from their singer. Immediately afterward, the crowd shifted across the room to be further cut to ribbons by Cassilis, another late addition to the day. Then, the smaller of the two stages was bounced all over by the energetic Ultramantis Black, whose masked singer called for an end to racial violence and animal cruelty between songs. It was super cool.
Though the two stage set up was effective in cutting out nearly any and all downtime between bands, I used the few minutes between sets to walk around and check out the other vendors. Members of local fire act VoirVoir were there repping the Lehigh Valley Girls Rock Camp and Tape Swap Radio, respectively. There was a wheel you could spin with a chance at winning free mini-golf for life courtesy of Keystone Mini-Golf, and a table with a bunch of X-Files books and Friday the 13th movies on VHS (which I hope SOMEBODY bought, because the compulsive collector of old, useless things within me wanted them so bad, despite owning the whole series of films on DVD). There were donuts from Dottie’s Donuts, as well as a Mortal Kombat II machine. I didn’t play it, but I have mad respect for the fact it was there at all.
By the time The Beds came on in the wake of Ultramantis Black, the place was starting to fill in, with anticipation for the night’s headliners. I hadn’t heard The Beds previously, but they once again proved the local truism that you can’t go wrong with a John Galm project. Wearing a ripped Slow Warm Death tie-dye and rhinestone sunglasses that I think Bear from Kids gave him, Galm exhibited why he’s one of the Valley’s most aesthetically ambitious and captivating musicians.
The Beds were then followed by an equally tight, if necessarily more energetic performance from Literature. By this point, the number of heads filling the place continued to swell in anticipation of Slingshot Dakota and, on a personal note, my time under the needle was also closing in.
As Slingshot took the stage and began a set full of old songs, I sat down in front of Josh, Heritage Tattoo’s commander-in-chief, and exposed a virgin patch of flesh on my right knee. By the time the tattoo gun started buzzing, it was drowned out by old Slingshot gems like “Ohio!” off of their first LP, and “May Day” off their second. I sang along, the Heritage boys danced, and we all smiled. By the time Slingshot worked up to their last song – the opener from that same debut record, “The Golden Ghost” – the tattoo was done and I was among the crowd again. I count myself lucky to have seen them play that song live as many times as I have, and it’s something Anniversary Fest just would not have been complete without.
Basking in the afterglow of Slingshot’s set, freshly tatted, and out of beer, I wandered over and slid into a middle section of the crowd forming to see Plow United, the elder statesmen of the night. As expected, their set was kinetic and raw, with the whole weight of the room resting on Brian McGee’s vocals for a half hour.
Pissed Jeans, the last band of the weekend, is a band I really dig – although, a combination of riding the emotional high of the previous few bands, not being able to hear the wailing guitars too well, and being more interested in watching a recently-single friend develop a chaotic, ultimately ill-fated pit romance meant I didn’t take much away from their set, aside from the fact that their singer is pretty hilarious.
After the show was done, I said a few goodbyes and headed out. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the weekend a lot, trying to get my thoughts in order so I could write about it. I talked to people I know who had attended either day over the weekend, hearing back overwhelming positivity.
Adrian Chesh, a long time Valley punk from Bethlehem, praised the location as “the perfect place to celebrate the weird, unique awesomeness of the Lehigh Valley scene”. Estevan Redeemer, of Easton, called it “…weird, but a good weird” and spoke of feeling welcome on Saturday night despite knowing few other people there. Everyone I talked to was quick to heap praise on Chris Reject for the time and effort that went in to such a significant organizational undertaking.
One of the images that will always stick with me from Sunday is seeing – amidst Soul Glo’s sonic mayhem – Chris himself pulling a garbage bag full of empties out of its bin and putting a fresh bag in its place before disappearing to take care of some other little detail. He could have been anywhere at that moment. He could have delegated that to any of the people helping him, and I doubt anybody would’ve faulted him for it. However, it seems to me that that’s not even the sort of thing he thought twice about, because it needed to be done.
That’s a large part of why Square of Opposition Records is so important to the Lehigh Valley, and why Chris Reject is so good at what he does. He cares for this area, and he throws himself in to everything he does for the scene he’s been a part of for so many years.