On December 8th, the Washington, DC duo The Evens made the approximately hour-long trip to Winchester, VA to play a show. In keeping with the objectives of guitarist/vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer/vocalist Amy Farina, the evening was a gloriously informal affair; there was conversation and laughter alongside a spirit of excitement and involvement that flew in the face of passive consumption. And of course there was sweet music.
For some, the reality of The Evens is basically just another example of Ian MacKaye, without argument the more famous half of the now well-established Dischord Records’ duo that’s completed by drummer Amy Farina, being doggedly determined to do things his own way. The trajectory of that line of thinking sorta goes like this; first, as the vocalist of arguably the greatest American hardcore band ever, he reacted against the prevailing atmosphere of ritualistic alcohol, drug, and sex consumption by presenting a personal alternative that has come to be known as straight-edge.
Second, he co-owned a stridently independent and locally-focused record label that continues to thrive right up to this very moment. That’s mainly because it refused to compromise its ideals and enter into agreements that would produce obvious short term gains but inevitable long-term problems. Third was Fugazi, a group that in consort with Dischord’s goals proved that a rock band could become hugely popular without plugging into the big-label infrastructure that had become so dominant that many musicians and listeners had frankly never considered an alternative.
The above examples certainly contribute to why MacKaye is considered by many to be a living legend, but it doesn’t really adequately express the entirety of the situation, for it shortchanges the sense of interaction and the spirit of cooperation necessary for the whole thing to ferment into one guy’s cornerstone, yet appealingly non-grandiose contribution to rock music history. And rock music is a form where collaboration is absolutely essential.
The Evens pare that need for collaboration down to two members, a decision that might seem easier at a glance (an partnership of two being less complicated than associations of three, four, or five after all), but in this case it serves to transform the give and take into a thoroughly developed and beautifully expressed equality. This isn’t Ian MacKaye’s latest band, it’s a stripped down and emotionally honest musical union where both participants step forward but neither dominates the proceedings.
This lack of imbalances extends to the sort of audiences The Evens seek and the type of shows they desire to play. The first time this correspondent witnessed them in action was at a massive outdoor protest in DC, held in response to the then imminent Gulf War of noted political urchin George W. Bush, a gathering that included musical performers as varied as Steve Earle, The Coup, Thievery Corporation, and Le Tigre, the whole thing emceed by the eternally disruptive presence that is Jello Biafra.
The Evens played later in the evening, either before or after a fine set from Ted Leo, if you’ll pardon the haziness of recollection. The memory that remains crystal clear however is that the music of MacKaye and Farina simultaneously fit into the spirit of the event and felt out of place. This feeling was further driven home by seeing them twice more in the intervening years, first at the yearly summer outdoor shows held in Washington, DC’s Fort Reno Park, and again at a benefit event in the city’s All Souls Church.
These were small affairs with modest but devoted crowds, and it became clear as they occurred that all the necessary elements—the musicians, the listeners, the venues, the attitude of participation from all concerned, not only fit into the scheme of what was transpiring but also displayed a true parity.
Now some will certainly retort that a small show will nearly always be more interesting than a larger one, mainly because the immediacy of the occasion is greatly increased. I don’t disagree, though anyone that got stuck behind the pole in an over-packed crowd at the old 9:30 Club might beg to quibble.
What’s different in this scenario is that the music of The Evens is specifically scaled to prosper in this atmosphere of equal participation. When the size of the building, the mercenary indifference of the promoters, and the attitude of inactive receivership on part of the audience is increased, the effectiveness of The Evens’ mode of expression is diminished, and by design.
And the design of their expression is perfectly suited for a live show in a terrific little multi-tasking yoga studio in a city that’s a little bit outside the rock ‘n’ roll touring circuit. If the locale of Winchester, VA doesn’t get a steady flow of visiting rock bands, that surely doesn’t equate to a lack of interest in the music, something the folks in the Dischord office noticed through the frequency of orders being shipped to Chester Records, a modestly scaled but indefatigable source for vinyl sounds in the city. The story in short is that Ian made a call, the proprietor of Chester Records, Nate Rhodes made the arrangements and when the word spread, advance tickets were bought up with haste and anticipation.
It was easy because everyone involved wanted to be involved for good reasons. And it might all seem like no big deal, but the whole point of a show by The Evens isn’t to make an immense splash but to provide an experience of lasting and diverse impact for those in attendance. If scaled differently however, that doesn’t mean the music of Amy and Ian isn’t simply outstanding. Deeply felt and displaying an intense level of interaction from the two principals, its qualities have been described as folk-punk, partly due to the directness of communication and the lively and sincere component of protest their songs provide.
Additionally, there is a melodic complexity that consistently avoids being undermined by precision. It’s a complexity that requires the sort of togetherness that can only be gained through the discipline of practice, and yet they wisely avoid the pitfall of becoming overly tight. One of best aspects of The Evens’ sound is its looseness, an element that helps them to retain a high level of spontaneity, surely an important attribute in both folk and punk, and a factor that makes seeing them numerous times a true pleasure.
On this night another factor asserted itself, that of constant growth. For instance, older songs like “Mt Pleasant” and “Dinner with the President” have undergone interesting adjustments over time, and “Cut from the Cloth,” for a long time now a simply fantastic tune, has risen in performance to levels of the spectacular.
Arriving roughly midway through the set, it showcases everything that The Evens do well, particularly their striking grip on dynamics, a quality that’s doubly impressive given that the music is never very loud. And the sound of Ian’s baritone guitar really flourishes during “Cut from the Cloth,” bringing rhythm, melody, and texture to a song of great emotional power.
But another element of change is in the new songs, most of them found on the duo’s most recent recording The Odds, but also including one that was played live for the first time at this show. These tunes, “Warble Factor,” “Architects Sleep,” “I Do Myself,” and the excellent “Let’s Get Well,” among them, often find Farina and MacKaye exploring the quieter aspects of their sound, along the way becoming even less reliant on formal punk elements then they were at the point of their self-titled debut.
And it’s through these new songs that the pair’s shared vocals, already a distinctive part of their sound, find an increased effectiveness. There is a soulfulness in Farina’s singing that contrasts very effectively with MacKaye’s sharper, more declamatory style, so it makes total sense they’d choose to elaborate upon it with time, and what results is an atmosphere where neither person takes the lead, a partnership that brings real meaning to their name.
Furthermore, the sound and just as importantly the delivery of Amy Farina on drums, is one of the most attractive elements in The Evens’ presentation. That aforementioned looseness is in large part shaped by the restless energy and attention to detail that is her refreshing and quite unique playing style, one that invigorates while integrating with her counterpart’s own expressiveness to form a vital whole. But it’s a whole that allows the distinctiveness and individuality of each half to remain intact.
Of The Evens’ new songs, surely the most appropriate for this small but well-attended event was “Competing with the Till.” On the very fine new record, the tune’s narrative establishes the friction of intent between certain club owners/promoters, those whose main intent lies in the procurement of money, and the pair’s desire to simply play the most engaging show possible, encouraging a balance of scale and interaction that produces an intimacy that’s highly pleasurable.
Some commentators have reacted to “Competing with the Till” with charges of self-righteousness, and if the shows held and the music played by The Evens was indistinguishable from the norm I might be inclined to agree. But ultimately the aim of The Evens isn’t to put on a rock show but to instigate a happening of community, and that atmosphere was palpable during their set, making the whole evening quite special.
“Competing with the Till” essentially defined the response from the vast majority of the audience to the intentions of the band. In the end it didn’t matter if you walked to the show or travelled a fair or substantial distance; it was easy for everyone to feel right at home.
Photos: Nate Rhodes