Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Jeffrey Lewis - photo by Dan Bracaglia

Don Giovanni Turns 10 - With No Growing Pains

By Jamie Frey

In this day and age, "indie" is attached to so many different acts, genres and ideas, it's possible for many that it's lost its meaning: the humble, gritty, DIY concept that Michael Azzerad mythologized in the essential "Our Band Could Be Your Life." However, many of us can rest easy knowing that the dream of Greg Ginn's SST Records lives on, this time on the East Coast, in New Brunswick, NJ's Don Giovanni Records. Many of us were turned on to the label by Screaming Females, the anomaly of a power-trio, who came to relative stardom by bringing the grandiosity of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Thin Lizzy to basements and house venues across the country. They are led by Marissa Paternoster, a woman of slight stature who screams with mammoth conviction, and shreds on guitar in ways that would leave the most egotistical ax wielder with their jaw on the floor.

I missed the first night of Don Giovanni’s three-night 10th anniversary celebration at Death By Audio, which featured the great Husker Du-style pop/punk trio Brick Mower, but neither rain nor sleet nor snow kept me from the two night affair at Music Hall of Williamsburg. I was expecting the crowd to be thin due to the weather, but for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised. Friday opened with Hilly Eye, featuring Amy Klein formerly of Titus Andronicus, sporting an entirely different sound. The guitar and drums duo played a very intimate and scrappy lo-fi indie-pop, offering down to earth tunes that felt like a stripped down My Bloody Valentine or Jesus and Mary Chain. They just released their killer full-length debut Reason To Live about a month ago.

Next were Buffalo, NY trio Lemuria, who played the kind of punchy indie rock that, brought me back to pre-"Garden State" indie rock like Archers Of Loaf, Superchunk and Rainer Maria. Like Screamales, they featured a female guitarist who plays sharp post-punk guitar over the slinky Fugazi-esque rhythm section. Something the label should be proud of, even if it’s happenstance, is that every act (including Jeffrey Lewis's band) included women playing instruments, something all our inner (our outer) Riot Grrls should appreciate.

Katie Crutchfield, formerly of P.S. Eliot, took the stage as Waxahatchee, announcing that she was supposed to play with a band but they were stuck in Philly. Picking up her electric guitar, she played songs from American Weekend, a sad, sweet record that I really wish came out when I was in college; it would have found company amongst The Weakerthans, Modest Mouse, Wilco, Elliott Smith and Rilo Kiley in the category of great records to get seriously moody to.

Jeffrey Lewis - Photo by Samantha Skarin

A new addition to the label (Don Giovanni has been licensing his vinyl releases) is the veteran NYC staple Jeffrey Lewis, something of an OG for the Lower East Side anti-folk scene that went from the Sidewalk Cafe to the "Juno" soundtrack. Backed by his cousin Shayna on bass and a lady multi-instrumentalist playing keyboards, fiddle, and tambourine, he played a set that included new material, classics, and some of his "low-budget films" (his comic books shown on a projector with live narrations by Lewis.) The highlights of this completely unique set were a cover of Crass’s “Big A, Little A”, from Lewis’s 2007 Rough Trade album “12 Crass Songs,” one of the most interesting cover records to date, as well as a hilarious Lower East Side re-interpretation of Poe’s “The Raven”, done in Yiddish slang. Lewis told me that that act bombs everywhere but NYC.
The first night closed with Bomb The Music Industry! Vet Laura Stevenson and her very talented band, The Cans. Since I first heard of this band a couple years ago, around the same time we shared a bill, they have been getting bigger and bigger, recently opening for The Gaslight Anthem. I am not surprised at all, being that Laura is a very advanced songwriter and vocalist and her backing band has mastered the attack and release, the quiet-LOUD that serves the songs so well. Bassist Michael Campbell brings the muscle and Peter Madeo plays atmospheric, sophisticated leads, often bringing out the slide for a little flavor. Stevenson is one of those lead singers that greets the crowd with a humble, self-deprecating sense of humor, not necessarily absorbing that they think she’s amazing.

Laura Stevenson & The Cans - Photo by Dan Bracaglia

The first night was definitely songwriter driven, where the second night was full of band’s bands, opening with veterans Shellshag. This couple have been making records since 1997, starting with an EP produced by Pavement’s Gary Young. There is definitely a tradition coming from the slacker-y lo-fi crunch of “Slanted and Enchanted” as well as bits of The Ramones, Joy Division and especially Beat Happening. The guitarist and drummer play face to face with a special double micstand. Ripping through their catchy tunes with glee, they garnered one of the best crowd responses of the whole showcase, especially with a killer cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

Following were the quartet Home Blitz, who combined indie pop punk crunch with emo-ish feeling; another good thing about this showcase is that the shoegazers stayed home (as much as we love them) and these acts actually acknowledge the crowd and act like they give a shit. Just sayin’. For something entirely different, next was the reunion of the New Brunswick five-piece hardcore band Stormshadow, who haven’t played since around 1999. Before I was privy to this information, I thought that this band sure sounds a bit like Fucked Up, but it may just be that Fucked Up sounds a bit like them. Doubly fronted by a big bruiser hardcore singer and a wailing female guitarist, they got the crowd caught in a mosh and started the stage diving which would continue throughout the night.

Black Wine - Photo by Samantha Skarin

The next act was the post-punk power trio Black Wine, formed from graduates of The Ergs! and Hunchback. This is a unique act where three great players double as singer/songwriters, each with their own unique voice. The best comparison I can think of would be Mission Of Burma, an innovative and diverse band that succeeds in both punk and art-rock, often at the same time. Playing songs from last year’s Hollow Earth, their third full length record, as well as their back catalogue, they ran from song-to-song quickly, barreling through their brainy, aggressive tunes. One might say that Miranda Taylor is the best female drummer I’ve seen since Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, and she sings lead at the same time. Jeff Schroeck, once Jeff Erg!, brings to the table jangly pop-songwriting simultaneously evoking Bob Mould and The Byrds, speeding through the catchy “Through The Foam” from 2011’s “Summer Of Indifference.” Their bassist, J. Nixon’s tunes have the post-hardcore grind and halt of Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard.
What happened next I cannot exact explain, Black Wine finished and all of a sudden a bunch of guys got onstage. Then some other guys came and brought out a piano. Five guys remained and the piano player kicked into what we all realized was “Bat Out Of Hell” by Meatloaf.” The singer ripped his shirt straight off to reveal a black cape and the crowd went apeshit. It was one of the great unexplained moments in live music and I still have no clue who those guys were. Thank you, Don Giovanni.

Screaming Females - Photo by Dan Bracaglia

After that insane moment - which left everyone in a state of joy and confusion - it was time for the night’s headliner, New Brunswick’s Screaming Females, who in the past few years have gone from the long haul DIY circuit to opening for Garbage and recording last year’s “Ugly” with indie rock’s Phil Spector-figure Steve Albini. Though Marissa had to cancel a few shows due to health issues, the band sounded as muscular as ever, ripping through cuts like “I Don’t Mind It” and “Bell” and inspiring many crowd surfers throughout their set. This band pulled off something rare, a punk band that plays mostly metal that has been embraced by the indie rock community. How do they to it? Hard work, shredding, and driving a crowd absolutely nuts - and this was no exception. Shell and Shag, collectively Shellshag, joined Screamales onstage for a song they wrote together, and watching these five musicians who have spent many years playing together joined onstage definitely generated miles all around, and was one of the many treats that exemplified the ethos of the Don Giovanni label. These people are having fun and making records the way they should be made, and who knows what the next year will have in store? is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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