So I moved to DC a few years too late to ever see Unrest, the flagship act of Teenbeat Records, but the label itself was still thriving back then, in the mid-’90s. Teenbeat still exists, it still puts out interesting music, but much like its friendly neighbor Dischord, it doesn’t have the cultural impact that it did in the DC area during the ’90s (for one thing, label head honcho Mark Robinson moved to the Boston area a while ago). I gradually learned to really enjoy Teenbeat and its artsy, goofy aesthetic, and I wish there was more music around this town today that incorporated whimsy and humor, that made people look around nervously, wondering “is this a joke?” Teenbeat always seemed like a big friendly family of eccentric people, and over the years they have had lots of events that amount to family reunions; I’d never attended one, but the prospect of seeing Unrest for the first time, and Versus again, make me decide it was worth the potential weirdness of lurking around someone else’s party, not really being privy to all the inside jokes.
I needn’t have worried. I ended up actually getting most of the inside jokes, anyway.
I went with an old friend who introduced me to the Teenbeat scene in the first place, ages and ages ago. We missed openers Bossanova but saw the rest. A Teenbeat spokesman named Patrick acted as MC, doing little pieces of shtick between bands like acting as a corporate executive for the Teenbeat Corporation. Oddball Jonny Cohen did a capella songs from time to time. All of that stuff was quirkily entertaining.
The first band we saw was The Rondelles. I had never listened to them before, and they were a bit of a revelation. I remember them being around, and I was maybe even hanging out at the same parties as them a decade ago, but somehow I never got around to checking out their music. It was pretty kick-ass. They were sloppy and charming, not having performed in ten years, and at least the hott bassist Yukiko Moynihan seemingly not having played music at all in the meantime. I thought they were rad. I don’t remember ever seeing the standing-drumming-and-mashing-a-keyboard-with-a-drumstick technique before.
Here’s a video via kickbright:
The day after the show I got a copy of the Rondelles’ Fiction Romance, Fast Machines (also good!) and will gradually work my way through their discography.
I didn’t need any introduction to the discography of Versus, though. This was my second time seeing the newly-reunited version of the band, all violin-ed up. They are really an amazing band, and sounded really good on the old songs. They were in some ways the best band of the night — they can turn on a dime from soft/pretty to noisy/chaotic as well as any band. But I think the new stuff lacks the power of the old; it is more in keeping with the last “old” Versus album, Hurrah.
Sasha Frere-Jones recently wrote the following about Pavement: “In later albums, the beauty remained but the tension did not.” That would be a good description of Versus, too. Their brand-new album, On the Ones and Threes, was not yet released at the time of this show, but it turned out to be pretty yet not gripping. I will write a full review of it sometime.
I still really love Versus and will gladly go see them again whenever I get the chance, but more out of nostalgia than as an active, going concern. Though hopefully they will prove my (minor) doubts wrong. They can certainly put on a good show, still!
Here they are doing “Circle”:
And a new song, “Into Blue”:
Finally, after more offbeat interludes, we got to Unrest. They certainly made things interesting. I don’t know how many people in the crowd were aware that Unrest was doing a multiple-reunion deal, reuniting several different line-ups (details and setlists are here). Early Unrest is a lot different from later Unrest. I had never heard any of it before, and I don’t think too much of the crowd had either. There was no explanation of what was going on, unless you were savvy enough to follow along with Mark Robinson’s change-up introductions: for the first version he said, “Hi, we’re Unrest from Wakefield High School,” followed later by “we’re Unrest from Arlington, Virginia” and ultimately “we’re Unrest from Washington, DC.”
So yeah, the concert was a little complicated and slow-starting.
When the earliest incarnation of the band played odd experimental tracks and Bertolt Brecht, I overheard some younger attendees behind me talking about “indie rock.” They clearly didn’t know Unrest, but they were confused by the weird spectacle, noting that the high-school-era Unrest didn’t sound much like Modest Mouse or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Ah, indie rock. So baffling!
I was a little thrown off, too, by that earliest version of the band. They were sort of amusing. But when they switched over to the second incarnation I started to honestly enjoy the show. I had never listened to this version either, sort-of “mid-career” Unrest. I was intrigued by it and since then have started buying some of those albums, like Malcolm X Park (still looking for a cheap copy of Kustom Karnal Blaxploitation). They are good. In hindsight, this era of Unrest (from around 1988-1990) was promising and making interesting music.
Finally the crowd gave a cheer of excitement and/or relief when Bridget Cross hit the stage to take over on bass and play the semi-popular Unrest songs from their classic period that almost everybody was there to see. It was fantastic. We were close to the stage and they sounded really impressive; the songs from Perfect Teeth and Imperial hold up great, the fans were loving it, and the members of the band seemed to be having a good time. I hadn’t really listened to those albums in a long time, and I kind of forgot how many excellent songs there are.
Words don’t really do justice so we are lucky to be in the youtube era:
“Angel I Will Walk You Home”:
And “Make Out Club”:
It was one of my favorite performances in a really long time. My personal favorite was “I Do Believe You Are Blushing” and when I got home later that night I figured out how to play it on guitar. Not too hard! But then I tried to do “Cath Carroll” and about wore out my wrist. How does he strum so fast?!
This was a super memorable show, and even writing it up so much later is great. Here is a more contemporaneous review from dcist. This one is ending up on a lot of year-end best-ofs, I bet. Maybe mine too.