Posted by: Necci – Aug 21, 2012
Colorado's Planes Mistaken For Stars have always been a big deal in Richmond, beginning with a house show they played in summer 1997 at the end of a brief tour with City Of Caterpillar, a local post-hardcore group who at the time were just beginning to make the big impact they'd eventually leave on the city of RVA. The fact that City Of Caterpillar had toured with them was enough to get a lot of people curious about Planes Mistaken For Stars, and they sealed the deal with a wild, passionate performance that won them as many new fans as had been able to cram into that tiny basement. Ever since then, this city has loved Planes, and I knew a lot of longtime fans who might not be regular attendees of local shows anymore would come out of the woodwork to see their reunion tour hit the stage at Strange Matter. There was no question about that. What everyone had to be wondering was whether the reunited Planes could still bring the rock with the same power, fury, and heartfelt emotional energy that they'd last delivered it on that stage five years before. By the end of the night, we'd all find out, but there was a lot of show to be seen before that question would be answered.
I'd seen even more than most, as I started my evening at Strange Matter over six hours before Planes hit the stage. A four-band matinee show had drawn me out of the house early to see some bands featuring longtime friends and former bandmates of mine. That show deserves at least a brief recap, so here goes: Sea Of Storms started things off. This local group consists of 3/5 of the sadly-departed Mouthbreather, and mixes that band's powerful hardcore influenced rock n' roll sound with a more emotional flavor. Guitarist Brandon Peck does a great job of stepping up to take on lead vocal duties, while Mouthbreather vocalist John Martin has returned to the bass guitar, his original instrument (which he played in Marion Delgado and The Setup). Drummer Chris Brown is as rock-solid as ever. Best Practices, a Rhode Island-based group featuring transplanted Richmonder Jeff Byers, performed next, and their fast, energetic music straddled the line between punk rock and hardcore quite well. Springtime were the big hit of the early show for me--a brand new local quintet who draw inspiration from bands like Leatherface and Texas Is The Reason, they mix in the speed and energy of hardcore to recreate a style that I haven't heard much since the mid-90s. Their uptempo tunes are flavored with melody and emotion, and remind me of sadly-forgotten groups like John Henry West, though others are more likely to hear Dag Nasty and Lifetime (influences that are clearly also present in their music). Finally, Harrisonburg's Equestrians rocked the place with their mix of metallic and progressive post-hardcore sounds. They kept complaining between songs that they were out of practice, but I couldn't tell at all--they sounded great.
The early show wrapped up around 8:15, and after a brief break for dinner at the Subway on Broad St, I made it back to Strange Matter well before the evening's main event kicked off. Family Cat were first, and I discovered that this local quartet, who've also been getting quite a bit of buzz around town in recent weeks, featured multiple members of Springtime, whom I'd just seen at the early show. I wasn't quite as excited about Family Cat as I was about Springtime, mainly because they weren't playing a genre that's as close to my heart. But I still really liked them, and found their performance to be every bit as full of heart and energy as Springtime's had been. Family Cat have a sound that's somewhat hard to pin down, landing as it does somewhere between upbeat pop-punk and the more emotionally driven heartfelt post-Hot Water Music sound that's become a little too ubiquitous for my tastes of late (more about that later). Family Cat never take things too far in the latter direction, though, and they've got some super-tasty hooks on their choruses that can make up for just about anything, so they're a lot of fun to listen to regardless. The set took a turn for the somewhat goofy when singer Tyler Walker broke a string on his guitar and had to bring out a ridiculous yellow guitar with a tiny body that was shaped like a Girl Scout cookie, or at least that's how it looked to me. I always have to wonder where people get guitars like that. Anyway, the thing required so much between-song tuning that I almost feel like Tyler would have been better off replacing the string on his real guitar, but the set ended up going well on the whole, so it was hardly a deal-breaker.
Regents were next, and I was really excited to see them. Way back in the mid-90s, even before Planes Mistaken For Stars had ever played their first RVA show, Maximillian Colby were one of the most intriguing bands in the local underground hardcore scene. With their mix of ambient drones, stop-start math-rock riffs, and bouts of screaming chaotic noise, they were doing something almost no one in town had ever heard before, and had a huge influence on many of the bands that sprang up around town over the next few years. Maximillian Colby were cut short by the tragic death of their bassist, Bob Baynor, in 1995, but guitarists Drew Ringo and Dave NeSmith formed a new group called Sleepytime Trio, who carried on Maximillian Colby's legacy of innovative, complexly structured noise. That group called it quits in 2000, but after being apart for a decade, NeSmith and Ringo recently got back together to form Regents.
This was my first opportunity to hear their latest project, and as a longtime fan of both Maximillian Colby and Sleepytime Trio, I was very excited. Their eventual performance did not let me down at all. Featuring Jason Hamacher of Frodus/Battery on drums and Lukas Previn of Thursday on bass, Regents definitely had a more straightforward sound than did either of NeSmith and Ringo's two previous groups, with 4/4 rhythms being the rule rather than the exception, but Previn in particular did a great job of adding a rumbling bottom end to Regents' sound, and Drew Ringo's full-bodied screams still perfectly complimented he and NeSmith's interlocking guitar arrangements. The set's ending was particularly gripping--halfway through the last song, everything broke down until Ringo was the only one still playing, and while he carried on repeating the song's main guitar riff, Jason Hamacher carried his drum kit out to the middle of the dance floor, where after a minute or so he and Dave NeSmith finished up the song in the midst of the crowd, pounding out a roaring crescendo that was the perfect end to an intense set.
Between the fact that I'd been at Strange Matter for a good six hours already and the dramatic way Regents' set ended, I was feeling a bit tired by this point, and took some time to stand around outside before the next band started. As a result, I missed the beginning of Smoke Or Fire's set. Although they've been around Richmond for at least a decade, I'd never actually caught Smoke Or Fire live, or even heard any of their recorded efforts before, so it was hard for me to connect with what they were doing. I got a pretty clear idea of their basic sound--more of that Springsteenish heartfelt emo-punk that Hot Water Music pioneered years ago--but I think it was a significant liability for me to only be hearing them for the first time now.
Knowing that Joe McMahon and Jeremy Cochran have been playing this style of music for over a decade makes it easy to excuse it on an intellectual level, but with that sound having been cloned into near-ubiquity by legions of bands (mostly from Florida) in the last five years or so, it's hard for me to come to it with fresh ears anymore. Sadly, despite the clear energy coming from the stage, and the obvious enjoyment most of the crowd was feeling, I found myself thinking "More of this kind of stuff? Aw man..." Smoke Or Fire's current rhythm section features a couple of very talented RVA musicians in Suppression/ex-Darkest Hour drummer Ryan Parrish and former Sixer/Landmines bassist Casey Martin. Casey, who just joined Smoke Or Fire, seemed particularly delighted to be up there playing those songs, and it made me wish I could get on his wavelength. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, though, I just couldn't connect with them. Considering how much everyone else enjoyed their set, I'm sure the problem was with me and not with Smoke Or Fire. I'll reserve judgement until I can give them another shot, sometime when I'm less tired.
I summoned my last reserves of energy during the lead-up to Planes Mistaken For Stars' performance. I knew that if I just sat there throughout the set thinking about how tired I was, I would never forgive myself. I just hoped they'd hit the stage with enough energy and passion to rouse my tired bones. But of course, I needn't have worried. As soon as they started their first song, I could tell that they were just as excited to be there as the crowd was, and that they'd put everything they had into the music. Over the course of the set, we watched them do just that, as they moved from harder-hitting tunes off their final album, Mercy, backwards through their catalogue into earlier, more well-loved tunes. Halfway through the set, singer/guitarist Gared O'Donnell acknowledged that Richmond had always been a home away from home for the band, after which they played "End Me In Richmond" to rapturous response from the RVA crowd that had crammed into Strange Matter.
It seemed that this was what we were all waiting for, but Planes just continued to up the emotional ante, moving even further back into their catalogue to deliver several tunes from their self-titled debut EP, including fan favorites "Copper And Stars" and "Division." At one point Gared asked for the lights to be turned down and, during a quiet moment from "The Past Two," skipped the song's normal lyrics in favor of the opening verse from Prince's "When Doves Cry," modified to suit the song's slightly different rhythmic pattern. This moment was both amusing and affecting, and the band quickly moved out of this brief humorous detour into yet another crowd favorite, delivering it, as they'd delivered all the tunes in their set, with passion and power. The emotion in the room was at a huge crescendo, and it seemed likely that the end of the set was imminent, but Planes pleasantly surprised everyone in the room by carrying on, still with the lights down, for three more songs. Instead of creating an anticlimax, they were able to both sustain and further build up the impassioned feeling that the entire crowd was sharing with the band, making it last longer than seemed possible.
When the set finally ended, it seemed that everyone in the room had gone through an emotional catharsis. Groups of old friends who hadn't seen each other in years stood talking about how amazed they were at what they just saw. No one wanted the evening to end. Planes Mistaken For Stars haven't made any public announcements about the future of the group beyond this reunion tour--it could very well be that this was it, and once they finished their brief trek around the US, they'll never play together again. But I can't help but hope they decide otherwise. What I saw at Strange Matter last Sunday was a band who still are able to fire on all cylinders, and are fully capable of recapturing a feeling that, at least in the hearts of their fans, never totally went away. I hope to see them take the stage at Strange Matter again before all is said and done. If they do, I know plenty of people who will be right there to see it happen--myself definitely included.
Words by Andrew Necci
Images by Jake Cunningham