On Sunday afternoon, all of the online chatter seemed to be about the Grammys. Greta Van Fleet didn’t win one thing but they won another. There wasn’t enough of one genre but there was too much of another. A lot of attention seemed to be focused on the most trivial of matters.
So, rather than suffer through the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the TV, we went to Alex’s Bar for the afternoon, where quality music was truly being celebrated, as was female empowerment and cultural diversity.
“I stand before you,” said Neighborhood Brats singer Jenny Angelillo during their set, “because of Penelope [Houston, Avengers] and Alice [Bag].” There’s no doubt that Houston and Bag (among others) blazed trails on the West Coast, as Patti Smith and Deborah Harry (among others) did on the East Coast, and Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene (among others) did across the Atlantic. But, as Bag points out later, there’s no point talking about the problems of the past if we don’t connect them to what’s happening now. As the much-needed #MeToo movement continues to have a vital impact across the globe, it’s important to remember that we haven’t made as much progress as we should have, or as we like to think we have.
The Alley Cats take to the stage first, led as ever by punk & roll lifer Randy Stodola. Having formed in the late ’70s, The Alley Cats split in the ’80s with Stodola repackaging them as The Zarkons. However, he re-formed The Alley Cats in 2015 (notably without bassist and ex-wife Dianne Chai). Apryl Cady is now playing bass, and singing on a couple of songs. In fact, with all due respect to Stodola and his life-weary larynx, Cady’s spots at the mic are the highlights of the set. Not that Stodola’s punk–Bob Dylan vibe isn’t appealing.
When X’s John Doe said (way back) that The Alley Cats had made some of the most nihilistic music on the scene, the statement was close to prophetic. There’s a vibe of “soldiering on despite everything” that is both dark and romantically poetic. These aren’t the glory days for The Alley Cats, but they’ve found something fascinating in the dusk.
The Neighborhood Brats are a different proposition entirely. The Long Beach band are the only act on the bill that aren’t from “back in the day,” though neither are they kids. Having formed in San Francisco in 2010, the Brats relocated to this end of the state and have since been steadily building a loyal fan base.
And damn, they are a fantastic live band. The aforementioned Angelillo is the personification of energy, blending the frenetic anger of Alice Bag with the headcase vibe of an Ian Curtis. She’s all wide eyes and zombie walks, head shakes and high kicks. The set dashed by way too fast, so when we got home, we checked out the Claw Marks EP on Bandcamp. As we suspected, this is a band with a message to match the live presence. If you’re not familiar, put that right today.
Act three of today’s Punkapalooza is, of course, Alice Bag. At this point, Bag is practically royalty in these parts. She also remains one of the most important punk artists anywhere, thanks to recent material such as “77” from last year’s Blueprint album (about the fact that women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men) and “No Means No” from her 2016 self-titled solo debut.
Of course, we get some Bags classics mixed in with her solo tunes. But whichever era of her career she’s pulling from, she sounds incredible, as does her band. She jokes that her 20 years spent teaching is impossible to turn off, but the fact is that we want to listen to her. Frankly, everybody should.
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That just left Penelope Houston and the Avengers to close the show. It’s slightly off that 1983’s self-titled compilation (aka The Pink Album) is the closest the Avengers ever came to a true studio album, but such is life. Armed with songs as beloved as “We Are the One,” and one of the best songwriters and performers that punk ever produced, the Avengers carved out their own little section of music history.
Houston opened the set with a tribute to a fallen comrade, original Avengers bassist Jimmy Wilsey (also of Chris Isaak’s band), who died in December. She also mentions a GoFundMe page set up for Wilsey’s family.
As for the set, it’s typically fiery and furious. Songs such as “Teenage Rebel” and “Thin White Line” sound as vital now, with the band members well out of their angsty teens, as they did back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Houston’s solo career as a singer-songwriter proved that she has some real chops, and that, combined with her no-nonsense vocals, helped the band create something special. In 2019, they still sound fantastic.