It's a little sad that show number 1 of 2008 didn't arrive until 12 days in to the month, but for some reason winter turns Vancouver into a musical backwater. So it was with some excitement that I opened my account for the year by trooping to a metal show in the Downtown Eastside.
I've written at length elsewhere about how the DTES is a weird paradox of a place, and a fair proportion of the people who may eventually read this are already familiar with the concept, but it's a part of town that is a haven for the indigent, addicted, mentally unstable, and unhealthy. The poorest postal district in Canada, it's a place where it's probably easier to get crack than a can of coke, but lately it also seems to be home to a bevy of hipster bars, rock shows, and general awesomeness (rock and roll in a japanese restaurant where the audience sings karaoke hits in the breaks between bands, anyone?). And when I say "lately" I mean "in the two years since I've been in Vancouver" - any time the Vancouver Sun does a profile on the "new" trend of kids hanging in the 'hood, you can pretty much guarantee it's been going on for a considerable period of time.
So we rolled up to the Astoria, and it was packed - for possibly the first time in the bar's long and storied history, there was a line outside. I've not been to this particular establishment before, so I can't comment on it's normal level of patronage for a Saturday night, but it's obvious they were expecting big things - they'd set up supplementary alcohol stations at alternative locations around the room in order to sate the audience's thirst for cut-price beer (it's the closest I've seen to a crowd drinking a bar dry since the Alpha Males Bastille Day Extravaganza at Rick's Pool Bar, where we even finished the Turkish beer right at the back of the fridge).
Anyway, Bison are a local metal band, who came heartily endorsed by my friend Karen, who had seen them previously (I believe she called them "hard-driving", whatever that means). I can't remember the last metal show I went to (or if I've ever been to a metal show), but I did kinda see Mastodon in Chicago last summer (and by kinda, I mean I walked past, stopped momentarily to admire the amount of hair on stage, and then kept on walking to get another slice of deep dish pizza and to watch skinny kids in plaid shirts try and play basketball), so I'm familiar with this particular genre of metal.
Standing in the crowd, nursing a locally mass-produced beer (no product endorsement here, kids) I was reminded of a conversation I'd had earlier in the week, about whether hipster and scenester were complimentary or derogatory terms. I've always used hipster to describe a certain aesthetic (e.g, you can drink hipster beer, or go to a hipster bar), but I generally use it in a positive context, whereas I'll use scenester to describe the bandwagon-jumper in the corner, who read in GQ magazine that cardigans, beards, and slumming it at downtrodden bars was in this season. So, it turned out that my fellow conversationalist had fairly similar definitions for the same words, but they were directly reversed. Which is all apropos of nothing, except to say that the crowd for the most part fell into the first category, whatever that might be called.
I felt remarkably clean cut. Admittedly I have had a haircut in the last 3 months, which is good for me, and I'd shaved sometime in the previous 48 hours, but I was overwhelmed with a desire to go sit in a dark corner and concentrate on growing some facial hair. And you have no idea how much I wished my hair was long enough to shake around - having your fringe flop foppishly onto your forehead might gain you kudos at a Smith's covers band, but it is nothing compared to the waterfalls of unwashed man-mane that fly about at a metal show.
and the astoria is a weird venue. the sound set up looks about as reliable as the Vancouver weather (screamcore skate-metal bands lose something of their visceral power when the mike and several of the amps cut in and out during the course of a song), it has a strange medieval theme inside (arched panels line the walls) and it looked like someone set up a coloured disco ball (and those traffic lights that flash in time with the music) in 1976 and forgot to take it down.
The support for the evening was the aforementioned screamcore skate-metal band, Jaws, (highlights include the drummer stripping down to his underwear, the banter "this song's about skateboarding. Actually, all our songs are about skateboarding", and when the bassist's phone rang, and he went to answer it, saying "It's one of my bass buddies"), and Ladyhawk, of whom I didn't know what to expect. I have a friend who is in love with them, and we've been planned to get to their shows on 6 or 7 occasions, only to have our plans derailed by travel, apathy, or forces of nature. I have another friend who said she saw them supporting Mates of State, and that they were so out of place and bad, that she drunkenly heckled them for the duration of the show. Turns out that the band she saw and heckled wasn't Ladyhawk, because seconds after they came on stage, she sheepishly had to admit that they were someone completely different. Anyway, Ladyhawk were impressive - sharp, well-structured and solidly performed songs, that I wouldn't mind seeing again (and I'm betting I will, they seem to be relatively prolific about town).
and the headliners? Well, I don't really remember actually listening to them, I certainly remember being jostled (although I don't want this to be read as complaining - going to a metal show, standing within ten feet of the stage and complaining about being bumped into by a succession of over-enthusiastic gentleman is like going to the opera and complaining that some fat woman sang all the way through, ruining an otherwise enjoyable night out.) and I remember checking to see where my next beer was coming from, and looking about the room to see if any of the attractive women in attendance were looking at me (they weren't) - but everyone else seemed to enjoy it, and I'm pretty sure I'd go again, especially if it's at the Astoria.
PS - extra points go to the drummer in Bison who wore an improvised hat designed to look like a Buffalo. But let it be noted that points were removed when he took it off after one song. I realize it's hot up there, but you've got to suffer for your aesthetic.
PPS - anyone who was with me who may have said some of the things above that I have shamelessly copied and attributed to myself, I'm sorry. But get used to it. It will happen again.