By Blake Mitchem
I arrived at Joe's Grotto, a hole-in-the-wall dive in the center of north Phoenix, to a full parking lot. Emery, who is a better performing portion of the sub-culture world known as screamo/post-hardcore, draws a substantial crowd. What I wasn't prepared for however was how many people would show up for the openers. Emery is a more mellow piece of the otherwise heavy scene they occupy which made openers like Sleeping Giant a pleasant surprise.
After sorting out an always awkward pat-down with a bouncer who accused me of flirting with him and an out-of-the-blue meet-and-greet with Josh Head of Emery, I shuffled into the venue. Joe's Grotto features a video monitor on its patio where I watched the first act Forevermore, which didn't disappoint. Wolves at the Gate were next, bringing the energy level up but pausing in the middle for a lengthy speech about the bands personal religious conviction. It was good - for those who resonated with their message. Not that music isn't a good platform for those kinds of things and not that I didn't agree with him, but there is a way to do it that makes things seem less obligatory. Rehearse the message, stick to the essentials, but above all, stick to the music. That's why we are here.
Sleeping Giant was up next, continuing the now recognizable pattern of shuffling through unrehearsed mini-talks that seemed to drag on between almost every song. Just moments before my brain was going into overload with philosophical questions about why I'm here on this earth, the singer let out a short more well rehearsed "its-the-fourth-quarter-and-we're-down-by-six" rant about not forgetting the underdog. All of that in combination with encouraging the crowd to chant "quack-quack-quack" quoting the Mighty Ducks. Okay Sleeping Giant, you got me. I'm back.
After Sleeping Giant we all - and I do mean all - stuffed ourselves into the small patio space to await Emery. While discussing the previous bands with friends and random onlookers, a debate ignited between several people standing near by. I heard one of them say "if you believe in Jesus, that's great...but don't preach at me about it. As soon as that started I was checked out and at the bar". I nodded my approval and looked to my friend Josh who matter-of-fact stated "What's your message and did you effectively communicate it? That's the question behind any cultural movement".
As I was thinking through a response I heard screams from inside as Emery took the stage. I put my question aside and pushed my way to the front where I was shocked to find bassist Matt McDowell in a wheelchair. This didn't keep him from moving however as the wheelchair struggled to support his violent head banging and aggressive, energy-filled motions. The decibel level had to be astronomical, however no one but me seemed to mind (I've got sensitive audio engineer ears, y'know?) They played the popular songs from their hit record The Question such as "Studying Politics" which received dramatic applause and ignited a mosh pit. After all, as any good hardcore kid knows, a post-hardcore show is only as good as its mosh pit.
If you've never been to a hardcore show before, the mosh pit isn't for moshing, it's for dancing. I'm not talking about the robot though; I'm talking about slam dancing: a breed of movement where the subject not only moshes but flails there fists and legs in a way that looks like fighting. Though filled with violent motions, this should not be confused with aggression. It is a form of expression which controls chaos in such a way that it releases those feelings of negativity or anger that can't be reached by traditional methods. It is therapy for the angsty sub-population of the music world and when done right it is a beautiful thing. It is the crowds way of saying "I love this music so much that I have to punch a stranger". Not in a mean way though.
After three songs guitarist Matt Carter announced why Matt McDonald was in a wheelchair: he had torn his Achilles' tendon at the previous show and wouldn't be able to see a doctor for several more stops. The crowd let out an "ooooohhhhh" like the kind surprised onlookers let out after a wipe-out in a skate video. He then shouted, "But that won't stop him from getting on this stage for you!" to the crowd's overwhelming approval. Then screamer and keyboardist Josh Head grabbed Matt's wheelchair and started pushing him swiftly around the stage as the next song began. They weren't just business partners; they were family to each other and it was palpable.
After performing a little over half of The Question, they abruptly announced "Well, that's all for The Question!", threw a black cloak over Matt's head and walked off the stage leaving Matt alone center stage. Several seconds later, they reappeared and pulled away the cloak revealing a smiling Matt as if they were magicians who had fooled us all. The crowd loved it and, I have to admit, I did to. This wasn't a tour in support of a new album; this was a 10-Year-Anniversary tour and they treated it that way. It was like the band acknowledged the fans intimate relationship with them. They didn't have to be showy anymore. They were just reuniting with old friends and being themselves and it's exactly what the crowd wanted. They proved this to be true near the end of the set when singer Toby Morrell said solemnly "I've had so many people come up to me after shows and tell me how these songs got them through dark times. Well let me be the first to say that you all are the reason I got through some of my darkest times". It was authentic and moving. He then said, "We've only got one song left and we're going to let you pick it". The crowd and the band already knew what we were going to ask for. The crowd screamed in unison "We want WALLS!". The band obliged us with one of their oldest and most popular songs to my satisfaction. I doubt a single person would have disagreed with me.
In the parking lot afterward I ran into some friends who hashed out my question with me. "What was the message and did they communicate it effectively?". We all decided we didn't know exactly but that the experience was moving all the same. Right then my friend Vince who rode with me texted me that he was ready to go. I walked to meet him at my car where he was sitting with a pretty girl he had met earlier in the evening. They said their goodbyes and me and him talked on the drive home. "I've almost got five months of sobriety under my belt" he said proudly.
"Great job dude" I replied. "What's your secret?".
"The music man. It's the positive message in the music. All that stuff about Jesus and believing things can get better. I know you thought it was preachy but that shit actually means something to me, you know?"
"Yeah?" I said with some mild conviction in my voice. "Well, it looks like you're not alone".