Alright, so I’m not a big fan of festivals. The heat and sweat combined with the endurance required really doesn’t mesh well with my body. Having said that, for a lineup this jam-packed, I had to try and give it a shot. I was only able to stick it out for the Saturday shows before getting exhausted and sunburnt, but of what I saw, I was really impressed. There was a really solid mix of bands, but most were sporting a punk or emo sound. I picked out some of my favorites from the day and here’s what I have to say.
These guys have been on my radar for a bit, but I’ve never seen them live and was really impressed. They mix stoner rock riffage with reverb drenched vocals and the occasional epic shredding. Their sound is heavy and driving, but utilizes the pop sensibilities of bands like The Breeders and (the) Pixies. There are strong metal influences too, especially with the face-melting solos, which makes sense since C.J. and Thomas both played in Stallone, Atlanta instrumental metal, group a few years ago. Overall, Big Jesus should be on your radar. It’s rare to see a band take nostalgic influences and repurpose them to create such a cool sound.
Milemarker are an older band from the late 90s that played a sassy style of post hardcore not unlike The Blood Brothers or Swing Kids. They play shows sparingly so I was pumped to see them, and they delivered. On their later albums they moved more towards standard alt rock (as most bands did back then), but their later stuff still featured their unique use of synths and keyboards which gave them a distinct sound. They played a mix of old and new tracks, but there wasn’t any weird disconnect between the different songs that you can hear in other bands (more on that later). Overall, it was really cool to see them, but they were a sort of outlier for the younger crowd that this festival tends to draw.
I saw Deafheaven back around the time Sunbather came out and it was a great show. This time around they were just as good. Everyone is pretty familiar with the polarizing quality of this band, but I still dig them. George Clarke’s stage presence is as captivating as ever, Kerry and Shiv’s dueling guitars vary from tremolo-picked cacophony to lush melodic passages, and Daniel and Stephen’s rhythm section is driving and intense. Even if you don’t like the band, you have to admit that they put on a great show. Even though they were playing in broad daylight, I couldn’t help but feel a vigorous rush of colors from them while they played, sometimes bright and beautiful, other times melancholic and sublime.
I know Drug Church mainly as Pat Kindlon from Self Defense Family’s side project. As SDF worked its way towards more experimental post-punk territory, Drug Church picked up where early Self Defense Family left off and it’s really great stuff. They play hardcore punk but through the lens of 90s alt and indie rock leading to some really cool moments instrumentally. Pat’s dark and satirical vocals are the glue that holds everything together along with his stage presence. He has a really unique voice lyrically and sonically, and it was really cool to finally see them. His banter is also hilarious, he’s the type of person who could make you laugh by trying to interpret the instructions for IKEA furniture.
Ceremony is an interesting band. They’ve been doing their thing for about 10 years now and have gone through a bunch of changes stylistically. From the early grinding fury of “Violence Violence,” to the chunky hardcore of “Rohnert Park” to their most recent album “The L Shaped Man,’ which has them playing Joy Division-style post punk. With a band that has covered as much ground as Ceremony has had, a live show is a struggle. Do you just play the old classics? Do you play stuff off the new album? Ceremony decided to go by playing all sorts of stuff from their back catalog, which I think made everyone happy, but led to a less cohesive show. You could see people in the front row waiting patiently for them to finish their tight and tense post punk track, hoping they’d play something that they could mosh to. This isn’t to disparage their musicianship though. It doesn’t matter what they were playing, everything was tight as hell and well played. Ross, their vocalist, in particular is really great at matching the energy of whatever song their playing and captivating you in the process. This is the type of performance that you can only get from a band that has been playing for as long as Ceremony has.
Drive Like Jehu
Oh gosh, I don’t know what to say. Drive Like Jehu is my favorite band and I’m probably going to sound really biased, but never did I ever think that I’d get the chance to see them live. They’re titans of the 90s noise rock and post-hardcore sound, paving the way for bands of today like Metz and Cinemechanica. They were the main reason that I really wanted to go to this festival. No one ever knows how long these reunions last, so I wanted to cross this off my bucket list while I could. I was front row for the whole set and it was glorious. John Reis’s Marshall stacks were aimed right at me and I could hear every note, riff and feedback squall he played for the whole show clear as day. The opened up with “Super Unison” beginning first with a minute or two of straight amp feedback and then, ecstasy. Mark Trombino’s drumming was as powerful and driving as ever, Mike Kennedy’s basslines were seductive and gritty, Rick Froberg’s vocals had that inimitable howl, and John Reis was front and center, squeezing chords, licks and feedback out of his guitar like a madman. I’d heard these songs for years by this point, but never like this. They went into playing classics like “Here Come the Roman Plows,” “Sinews,” and “Good Luck in Jail.” It’s like the four were in their 20s again, playing with the energy and precision that have made their music so lasting and compelling. I will say though that I wish that they played indoors or a more intimate space. As great as they were, you could tell that the guys weren’t really feeling the crowd. Outdoor shows tend to look less impressive for bands with this niche an audience, and that can be disheartening for a band onstage. This is a festival mainly for kids my age, who either never heard of Jehu or only knew a few songs. I still saw a few older people sporting Jesus Lizard and Touch and Go shirts who balanced out the crowd as they relived a band from their younger years. Me and all of the other big fans were in the first few rows and were really into the set, but the audience looked less interested the further you got from the stage. I would love to see them do a venue-oriented tour in a year or two, but at this point I’ve seen them and that’s all I really ever wanted. They closed out their set with “Luau,” skipping over my two favorite songs of theirs (“Caress” and “Do You Compute”), but I was so enthralled that I didn’t even care. I was singing along at the top of my lungs just taking everything in. This was less of a show and more like a celebration. All of us celebrating this band’s music as loud as possible among our kin and sonic family. I hope I get to see them again one day, but if not, I’ll always have this particular memory that I can recall and not help but crack a smile.
Sunday at Wrecking Ball finds me weaving through multitudes of festival goers, attempting to find the perfect spot to see Rainer Maria at their 2:00 PM slot at one of the festival’s outdoor stages Park South. In what I would normally consider unbearable heat I find it hard to be even mildly uncomfortable while Rainer Maria delivers what I hold as the best performance of the entire festival. The band jumps straight in with their most popular songs, a benefit of seeing a band whose last album release was in 2006. However, the crowd holds back until they finally perform their song Tinfoil, to which everyone around me immediately belts all the words to and claps along to the beat. A standout moment of the show is Mike Kinsella, of American Football, gleefully performing as their tambourine player. It is also worth noting that their performance is identical to their recorded albums, which is overwhelmingly impressive considering some of the songs they perform were recorded in 1995. From their flawless performance to Kaia’s joking with the crowd about the heat ( even calling out a heckler) Rainer Maria solidifies their spot in my heart as one of the most underrated emo acts of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Due to the incredible lineup, I hardly have time to catch my breath between acts and I quickly hurry to Wrecking Ball’s other outdoor stage, Park North, to see Tiger’s Jaw. The differences between crowd of this show and the last one are stark and I feel almost uncomfortable being surrounded with high schoolers after most people seeing Rainer Maria were easily 10 years my senior. Yet, my discomfort is unwarranted and the energy of the crowd quickly has me feeling like a child. Their performance starts out weak, seeming to be no fault of their own, with vocalist Brianna Collins way to low in the mix ( as she frequently gestures that she can’t be heard ) and not nearly enough reverb to match the album quality of their newer releases. However, mostly the band plays songs off their album Tigers Jaw, and the problems with the mix are sorted out just as the crowd erupts in blissful moshing. They finish solidly with one of their most popular songs, I Saw Water.
The Promise Ring delivers a solid performance that I hear faintly in the distance, as the heat is starting to catch up with me. The sun pummels the festival goers with its rays, and I admire the dedication to aesthetic of many attendees as black skinny jeans and black t-shirts are easily the most popular attire despite the heat. The space for the festival is minimal and the people are many, making shade somewhat of a rarity but I finally find solace under a small tree. I’ve easily consumed over 5 bottles of water at this point in the day and I’m wishing I had brought more of my own with the festival charging a hefty $3 per bottle.
Joyce Manor’s performance is exciting but not without its hiccups. Between a broken amp and a cymbal malfunction the momentum of the crowd and the show is halted numerous times. However, this more than made up for by the stellar sound and the crowd’s insistence to mosh to anything, including the brief interludes of less aggressive songs. The Wrecking Ball’s security is extremely prepared for the crowd surfers, who are quickly caught and sent off to the side of the stage with swift and prepared catches. Even when the number of crowd surfers seems to outnumber the security everyone makes it out alright and the eager crowd is quick to help anyone to their feet after falls or drops that inevitably happen. Unlike at their shows at smaller venues Barry Johnson, lead singer and guitarist, does not attempt to quell the violence, at a previous show the band played at The Masquerade the band would stop playing if people moshed and would wait for the chaos to stop until they resumed their performance.
American Football delivers a consistent set, but their consistency fades into the background this Sunday as there are too many notable bands also playing reunion tours whose sound has held up better than theirs. As they did the last time they played Atlanta at Shaky Knees in 2015 they open with Stay Home, a consistently poor choice as it showcases Mike Kinsella’s inability to reproduce the same vocal quality as he did in 1999 their self-titled album was released. Their performance seems rough compared to other reunion bands like Rainer Maria and Thursday who prove that quality does not necessarily have to suffer with time.
Motion City Soundtrack draws the most typically “festival” crowd I’ve yet to see at Wrecking Ball easily riding on their early 2000’s popularity to draw in a diverse array of people. The set is upbeat but the knowledge that this is their farewell tour hangs heavily on our shoulders. A remarkable band who brought catchy lyrics and kitsch performance tactics to tackle heavy topics such as the lead singer’s battle with OCD in Everything is Alright, they will surely be missed. No other band caters as much to their crowd, most notably Jesse Johnson the keyboardist throws everything from water bottles to drum sticks and a set list into the crowd.
In what is to date one of the most violent crowds I have ever been a part of, Thursday lights a fire in the hearts and minds of their adoring fans. What attempts to be a mosh pit abruptly becomes a squeeze pit with reaching hands trying to get as close to lead singer Geoff Rickly as possible. Every time the band plays a hit, such as Understanding in a Car Crash, or Cross Out the Eyes, adrenaline rushes through me knowing at any moment a crowd surfer could be kicking me in the face or multitudes of people could be using me as a human ladder trying as best as they can to join the crowd surfing themselves. Where in earlier shows in the day fallen moshers were swiftly scooped up by helpful hands, this crowd leans more toward “every man for himself” sharply contrasting the lead singer’s ambitious inclusive messages such as not marginalizing women in the hardcore singer. However, Rickly brings beauty back to the chaos showing nothing but love and devotion to the crowd as he goes so far as to lean off the stage putting himself at the mercy of his fans. Swinging his microphone above his head like a cowboy would swing a lasso, Rickly proves himself to be an extraordinary performer as well as a vocalist.
The night closes with an energetic yet unremarkable performance from Quicksand that solidifies Wrecking Ball as a reunion powerhouse. This festival revels in bringing nostalgic early 2000’s emo, post-hardcore, and punk into 2016 with fresh newer acts to round out their lineup. Wrecking Ball is more than a list of shows, however, and never fails to bring entertainment with interesting merchandise tents, puppy petting, and delicious food trucks. Unlike most Atlanta festivals Wrecking Ball has a clear genre focus which helps them perfectly cater to a comparatively smaller audience extremely well. Accordingly, you are less likely to encounter bandanas and camelbacks and more likely to see gothic show makeup or Jawbreaker t-shirts (of which I counted at least 10). Here’s hoping Wrecking Ball continues to deliver excellence in the years to come.