I think the first time I saw Avail was at Dayton’s More Than Music fest in 1993. In an era of hardcore where 90% of Midwestern affairs were just a wall of people standing with crossed arms staring blankly at a band just exploding, Avail provided the experience I had dreamed of since I first heard about punk via the episode of the Chipmunks where Alvin gets caught in the mayhem of the pit. From minute one, they were a surge of frenetic energy — an orgy of bodies flying, screams, singalongs, and mayhem, all being directed by cheerleader extraordinaire Beau Beau like a conductor leading a symphony.
Fast forward 29 years, I find myself with more pounds and less hair than I would like, celebrating this band with several thousand potential friends yet again. And while the Brown’s Island concert experience on Saturday, August 6, 2022 was light years away from the random building owned by meth-making bikers in the middle of a field on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio in 1993, the sense of connection and commonality Avail provided was the same.
This was driven home by the selection of the bands leading up to the headlining event. The day started out with a blazing sun and a sparsely populated field, accompanied by the blistering, noise-soaked hardcore of Richmond locals Terminal Bliss. Made up of former members of Pg99, Iron Reagan, Stop It!, etc. they tore through a rapid-fire, scathing set of hardcore punk which was seemingly over before it began. They are a must-catch next time they roll through a basement or warehouse near you.
Screaming Females hit the stage as ominous storm clouds started to roll in – led by guitarist Marissa Paternoster (coined the 77th-greatest rock guitarist of all time by Spin in 1982), they are a band which makes the point that punk rock is less what you sound like and more about how you do it. While they play a more traditional rock style, complete with mountains of fretboard dynamics and jamming solos, they cut their teeth in basements and DIY spaces, and by releasing records on independent label Don Giovanni.
Unfortunately, as their set concluded, the thunderstorm my Lyft driver predicted (and I scoffed at) began to take shape – eventually causing the island to be cleared, minutes before Los Angeles’ Ceremony was about to start. Thankfully it only delayed things about an hour, and the rock was back on.
Ceremony has had so many style changes across their career, yet somehow they’ve always made it work as a cohesive project. Moving between moments of Wire-style tension, Prince-inflected dance music, stomping hardcore, garage rock and more, they were the first band of the day which really feel like they caught the crowd’s attention, getting them singing along to their cover of DC hardcore legend’s Red C and Ceremony’s own track, “Sick.” Unfortunately, their portion of the day was cut short thanks to the storm.
Boston’s Cave In started off as a moshy, heavier-than-thou riff machine some 25ish years ago and slowly morphed into a rock machine, pulling from elements of space rock bands like Hawkwind, and the desert rock slowburn of bands like Kyuss. Focussed primarily on tracks from their recent LP, Heavy Pendulum, they briefly dipped back to the year 2000 to hammer out the track “Big Riff.”
The sun began to dip below the horizon as Quicksand plugged in, tearing through a slurry of heavy, groove-oriented songs spanning their whole catalog — from their recent Distant Populations all the way back to their eponymous first single from 1990. For me personally, it felt like the latter half of their setlist was tailor-made for this graying old man, as they hammered down on bits and pieces from Slip and Manic Compression, aka ‘the hits.’ By the time they unplugged, the sun was finally gone and the island was finally full, just in time for Avail to take the stage.
I could probably write several thousand words on Avail — their importance to me personally, to Richmond music, to hardcore punk on a national level, etc etc. Richmond has long had a strong underground music scene — White Cross, Honor Role, GWAR, Four Walls Falling, Inquisition, Strike Anywhere, Municipal Waste, etc. But it has always felt like the most important was Avail. If there is any band who put the city on the map, it was Avail, as they slogged through tour after tour, playing explosive shows across the country and the globe, building connections with people, bands, and scenes along the way.
It’s these connections that matter most, and this was on full display as thousands sang along and danced to anthems spanning their whole discography. In many ways, the Avail presented this past Saturday wasn’t far removed from that band I saw nearly thirty years ago — just the scale of the thing has changed. From the moment Tim stated, “Hello, we’re Avail from Richmond Virginia” to the closing strains of final song “Scuffle Town,” the band and the audience were one cohesive, furious organism radiating energy in a symbiotic relationship. The give and take between band and audience generated a passionate storm swell, filling the island and spilling into James River.
For me, one of the craziest moments was having a CSX train came roaring through on the tracks mid-set, blowing its whistle almost on cue — connecting Avail, a band held in such dear regard the world over, back to the town which made them. There is so much about Richmond which is manifested in the music and lyrics of Avail, and those things are part of what make them so special to both this place and the world over. A beautiful day indeed.
More scenes from Over The James 2022 at Brown’s Island. All photos by Michael Thorn: