By Kristin MacDonnell,
SDAM Staff Writer
©Copyright 2018 SDAM.com/Kristin MacDonnell
|Unwritten Law Returns Triumphant to San Diego Hometown
Prior to Thursday night's concert at the House of Blues, I had viewed Unwritten Law--and really, the whole genre of post-1980's punk rock--as somewhat of a joke. Having grown up in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb, where it seemed that every musically-inclined teenager idolized The Ramones and started a punk band, I was convinced that Unwritten Law wasn't anything special and had only made it big by some fortuitous sweep of the industry gods' hands. I'll even admit that before seeing them live, it would have been difficult for me to distinguish their music from the likes of Alkaline Trio or Blink 182. I guess I was slow to get our of my Led Zeppelin/Jimi Hendrix/CCR/Janis Joplin phase as a teenager.
But Thursday night's show confirmed that I really should have. Some truly impressive things are going on in the punk rock scene, and the House of Blues was the ideal venue to showcase it. Yes, the parking is hard-to-find and expensive, but it's a small price to pay for an evening at one of San Diego's most unique venues. The club proclaims its slogan "Unity in Diversity" on a large banner above the stage. I at first took it to be nothing more than a hackneyed platitude, but the phrase came to take on real significance as the night went on.
The relatively small standing area is flanked by walls of folk art, from vivid still life paintings to crosses made of Mardi Gras beads, and even the hand-painted ceilings and home-sewn stage curtain were beautiful and vibrant. While I had a cigarette outside in between acts, one employee told me that all the paintings, sculptures, and curtains are authentic folk pieces from the New Orleans area, a reminder that so much of our contemporary art (music especially) was born from Southern slave culture. Although its top-40 artist lineup does seem to contradict its purported folksy roots, the House of Blues seamlessly combines the trendy atmosphere of a warehouse-y club with the charm and familiarity of blues music and folk art. Upcoming acts Tenacious D, Too Short, Pretty Ricky, and Ne-Yo may seem a far cry from the "blues" the club advertises, but the idea is to celebrate the colorfulness of modern music while paying homage to the richness of its genesis.
And in fact, from the angry, cathartic wailings of opening band Neurosonic to the more harnessed angst of Unwritten Law, Thursday night was a showcase of the evolution of punk music itself. Neurosonic started things off a little after 7:00 p.m., playing to a scattered crowd of less than fifty people. The four-piece band from Vancouver powered through their set, displaying an interesting combination of sounds--one minute straight punk, their lyrics bemoaning Ashlee Simpson's existence; the next plucking metal riffs behind anti-Bush sentiment. The band ended up getting booed by the few people in attendance, and perhaps for good reason. Although their playing was impressive, the lyrics screamed by lead vocalist Jason Darr were mostly whiny and insignificant. Yes, Ashlee Simpson's musical existence is deplorable, but writing a song about it really seems to validate her more than it condemns her. The political songs were lacking in any fresh ideas or even well-grounded anger. Regardless, Neurosonic is doing quite well for an up-and-coming band--they are currently visiting over thirty cities alongside bigger names like Korn, Atreyu, and Evanescence in the "Family Values" tour.
After Neurosonic, Bullets and Octane took the stage and showed the side of punk that just wants to rock out and have a good time. They opened with a rendition of The Ramones' "Blitzkreig Bop"; a song that lead singer Gene Louis managed to rescue from its modern-day relegation to phone service commercials. Bullets and Octane showed a much stronger continuity of sound than Neurosonic. All four band members actively sang and danced to the jumpy beats, making their performance something of an on-stage party that the audience was encouraged to join. Gene Louis displays the charisma of a veteran rock star, from his flamboyant gestures to his proclamations of "We're just so fucking good, yea, we know..." His attitude was far from just cocky, however, and worked to get the audience excited--the majority of the still-scattered crowd actually heeded Louis' call to jump around and get moving. Although I had never heard of the Orange County band, their catchy beats and infectious confidence, combined with an impressive technical aptitude, seemed to destine the band to the fame Louis pretended to already have.
Zebrahead, another Orange County act, came on next. The five-person band features two lead singers and a remarkably talented main guitarist. Their angsty sound harks back to punk's roots, with lyrics like "Fuck you, I wash my hands of you" layered on top of fast-paced guitar riffs. Although angry at times, their lyrics were impressively honest and patterned perfectly with the music. Zebrahead's new album Broadcast to the World is definitely worth checking out; they stay true to a traditional punk sound while mixing it up with interesting blues and metal riffs--a perfect embodiment of the club's trademark "unity in diversity" slogan. The band knew that they were playing for a group of mainly high school aged kids anxious to see Unwritten Law, but they managed to shine on their own, get the crowd pumped, and display some of the interesting new sounds of the indie punk scene.
Unwritten Law returned to their San Diego hometown with a warm welcome from fans. From teenagers jumping in their Vans to parents nodding along with the music, the crowd went wild for hits from past albums as well as new releases like "Shoulda Known Better" off their new "best of" album The Hit List. The wide variety of songs in the band's thirteen-year history shows many of the changes punk rock has made as a genre. Singles like "Shallow" off of their first album Blue Room utilize fast-paced riffs and little attention to lyrical details. The band's contemporary releases, however, display much more lyrical complexity and a mainstream rock sound that in recent years has morphed to blend with blues and reggae influences.
Head vocalist/guitarist Scott Russo leads the band with charisma, charm, and an unrivaled technical ability to fuse punk with other styles. Their new release "Shoulda Known Better," for example, opens with a Spanish-inspired flamenco riff, then transitions into traditional fast-paced punk. Their songs range from the angsty to the anthemic, and Russo knows how to work the crowd into his own emotional roller coaster. Unwritten Law represents the apogee to which many local punk bands aspire--a fame that is large but still well-respected by hometown locals. Although, as the cashier at the pizza parlor next door claimed, "punk is on its downfall," Unwritten Law managed to put on a concert that celebrated their popularity without straying from their roots. The House of Blues was the perfect location to stage the band's homecoming--its small, colorful setting made for a concert that was as intimate as it was explosive. I walked away from the show with a newfound appreciation for both Unwritten Law and punk rock as a whole. Contemporary punk has become much more than just the agitated whinings of jaded suburban kids, it has mastered a fusion of rock's most interesting styles--blues, metal, reggae--into a fresh form that is as enjoyable as it is palatable.
By the end of the night, I could see how the phrase "unity in diversity" was so pertinent to the music featured at the club. As the single most important foundation for modern rock and hip-hop sounds, blues music is the central point about which the diverse axis of contemporary music spins. Although the club's June lineup ranges from commercial hip-hop acts to classic rock, all the artists revere their common ground in being influenced by blues.
The next day on my way to work in Sorrento Valley the back of a street sign covered in local bands' stickers and advertisements caught my eye. It seemed out of place at first, but the layered stickers reminded me that there are a ton of undiscovered and immensely talented musical acts in the community. Even in San Diego, where it seems that wealthy biotech firms and conservative politics stifle any artistic expression, creative individuals are always making new forays in the art and music worlds. Whether it's a big night at the House of Blues or a smaller show at places like Lestat's (Normal Heights) or Winston's (Ocean Beach), San Diego music is alive, vibrant, and always worth your time.