Shaking floors, friendly pours and a whole lot of stage diving: ATL’s Wrecking Ball 2016

by | Aug 19, 2016 | MUSIC

After 26 years as the centerpiece of all things DIY and heavy in Atlanta, the legendary punk venue the Masquerade didn’t plan on going quietly. If this weekend’s bone-shaking sets were any indication, they are only getting started with the second year of their annual festival, Wrecking Ball.

After 26 years as the centerpiece of all things DIY and heavy in Atlanta, the legendary punk venue the Masquerade didn’t plan on going quietly. If this weekend’s bone-shaking sets were any indication, they are only getting started with the second year of their annual festival, Wrecking Ball.

Resilient fans swarmed to the venue and adjacent field for sets ranging from Dinosaur Jr. to Gorilla Biscuits, Anti-Flag to L7, as the spectre of towering luxury condos loomed overhead.

But the weekend was hardly somber (or, for that matter, sober).

Saturday opened with a lineup including hotly anticipated reunions from 90s staples like Piebald (seen below) and The Promise Ring, and touring veterans like Gorilla Biscuits and Deafheaven. Despite the lack of respite from the Georgia heat, attendees seemed equally content to live in the present, crack open a beer and find the best spot to stake out before their must-see set.

One of the only uniting factors of Saturday’s headliners, L7 and Drive Like Jehu, was their tremendous impact on their respective subgenres. Besides that, the two bands couldn’t come from more opposite sides of the punk spectrum.

Drive Like Jehu (seen below), as early nineties post-hardcore legends, naturally attracted a mellower crowd (including, notably, American Football’s current bassist, Nate Kinsella, who stood next to us and bobbed along to the music) with their brand of orchestral aggression. Though famous for their complexity, their Saturday night set was pure aggression and energy, heightening to a guitar-heavy fever pitch before slinking back into a growling 90s grooves. An appropriate cap to a day that included incredible sets from the likes of Deafheaven (a favorite of mine) and Deerhunter.

Then L7 brought the crowd back to 80s metal at its height, both in the crowd that it drew and their enthusiastic response. Where DLJ was moody, L7 was bombastic and brash, entreating the largely female audience to “make some noise for the ladies.” The group stomped the stage, Donita Sparks ripping out riffs on her flying V and featuring songs off their second album Smell the Magic. It’s no doubt they were influential to Courtney Love, and to Kathleen Hanna, whose band the Julie Ruin played earlier that day. As an added pedal to the floor, the band brought Juliette Lewis out to reprise her role as Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers as they played a raucous rendition of “Shitlist.”

Sunday made it a contest on what would melt your face off first–the Atlanta heat or the day’s sets. Lemuria, Joyce Manor and Burn put on energetic sets early in the day, leading up to two of my favorite sets of the festival, American Football and Dinosaur Jr. American Football naturally played their sole 1999 album, while Dinosaur Jr. (pictured below) served up a mix of songs from their catalog, with selections from their new album (“Goin Down” and “Tiny” among them) as well as older and much beloved songs like “Freak Scene” and “The Lung.”

There was a sense of increased urgency for bands like Trapped Under Ice, the last show ever held in the Masquerade’s Heaven stage. The crowd took it as cue enough to go completely off the chain. Staff cleared spaces for audience member after audience member to stage dive, a note of unexpected order and welcome amid the chaos.

The festival’s reunion shows were often as electric as the headliners. Piebald’s early Saturday set on the Masquerade’s Heaven stage was near religious for the crowd and the band, as audience members screamed lyrics and the band leaned into riffs as if it was the very last one they’d play.

Thursday’s set on Sunday, heavy on songs from War all the Time and Full Collapse, had audience members rushing the barrier and crowd surfers hopping down shoeless, exhilarated and ready to run back into the fray. Other reunions from The Promise Ring and Hey Mercedes were met with much the same desperate frenzy from fans.

The weekend’s last show, a standout performance by Quicksand (seen below), seemed to bring elements of all the weekend’s bands. Stepping onto the smoky stage, their energetic set included songs off their 1993 album Slip, quickly shifting gearing into an aggressive knock-down drag-out of a finishing show.

But what I came back remembering most clearly, as I walked back bedraggled and sleepy from Quicksand’s set, were the shaking floors in Heaven from the bands playing in Hell and the energy and excitement of the people I encountered.

It was moments like this that made the weekend: I was watching a young teenage boy, chaperoned by his father, in front of me at Anti-Flag. He excitedly waited for the band to take the stage before screaming every one of their lyrics with abandon during their set. His dad looked on, not quite understanding, but not disengaged either. Every now and again he’d lean over and whisper to his ecstatic son, pointing out the band or the crowd and smiling slightly.

Only on Sunday, when we stumbled with the black-clad, sunburnt crowds back to our cars and hotels, crumpled PBR cans in hand, exhilarated and hoarse, did the realization come that this would be the last time we’d see the venue in its current form.

That night, the veil of excitement faded enough for us to see the ever-encroaching face of “progress” just outside the purple glow of the Masquerade’s overhanging marquee.

Recent years have been hard on the brick and mortar support systems for local music scenes across the country. Plenty of DIY venues and show houses folded in a struggle against skyrocketing rent. Others have just decided to call it quits after many years of grinding to support scenes.

Community spaces, like the beloved Richmond practice and art space Garbers, and underground venues, like Brooklyn’s Death by Audio, serve a crucial and oft misunderstood role in local scenes. When these institutions fall, it shakes the foundation of a creative community to its core.

Not even established venues seems safe from this, as the Masquerade has proven. As gentrifying forces push poorer residents and people of color to the outskirts of cities, the ground seems to shift beneath alternative spaces of all stripes and swallow them up.

Corporations cut down poor people, young people and minorities without discrimination in this way, but there are important differences between, for example, gentrifying black neighborhoods and pushing out venues that attract predominantly young white audiences.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the Old Fourth Ward. The Masquerade, thankfully, will live on at in their new location on the Westside neighborhood of Atlanta. But the area that fostered its growth has been forever changed, and it has taken with it some of the aspects that made the Masquerade a one-of-a-kind space.

And all the more imperative to create a space for celebrations like Wrecking Ball, bringing together bands, audiences and people to share in the communion of live performance.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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