Every year when the trees start to bloom and the weather warms it heralds not just the return of spring but the beginning of a very important time–backyard punk season. All winter the wild punx hibernate, playing their raucous music sparingly in places with amenities such as “heat” and “roofs.” Last month I went to the first show of the year at Anarchtica, beloved punk house down the street from my own, conveniently located behind the combination liquor store and karaoke bar. Drinking honey whiskey from a pint bottle, I flounced into the Christmas-lit basement to see my friends’ band Concrete Bees open the show, and in between sound checking, their guitarist/vocalist greeted me with a hug which made me feel special. It’s the kind of place where little gestures like that can feel very big, very special. Many friends showed up over the next ten minutes or so and every enthusiastic beer-sloshing greeting felt like a hole opened in the ceiling beaming light onto our squeezy hugs and “I’m so glad you’re here!”s. Concrete Bees are my favorite new local band but their drummer is moving to Indiana so they were a short lived favorite; fortunately their guitarist & vocalist Eric Nelson does a lot of solo acoustic sets with their songs as well as more of his body of work, and they will reprise every once in a while to play shows as a band. They do a Naked Raygun cover that melts my heart, my mom’s favorite song, “Vanilla Blue.” The touring band on the bill was Sad Magick all the way from Arkansas (not far, I guess, but it seems much deeper south than Chattanooga), and their noisy pop punk is exactly the kind of music I like to see live. I’ve seen some of their band members (well, at least one) in another band that I really love, so I wasn’t surprised by how much I loved Sad Magick. Loud and dynamic, they switched out vocalists and instruments, the shitty lighting giving them an ominous backlit effect for music that was fast and weird, lots of wild keyboards and wailing.
I missed the last band because I was on the porch talking to a couple of friends; this is rude and maybe a faux pas to admit, but I’ve seen the band ~twenty times and will see them twenty more in my life, probably. They went last because everyone loves them, as they well should. Why I missed them is crucial, though; I was standing on the porch with two friends of mine that I rarely see except at shows like this one, talking animatedly about our families, having babies, and buying houses. We discussed our plans for the future and I excitedly showed one of them a picture of Harrison Ford that I thought looked identical to her boyfriend (who was, like a good showgoer, downstairs watching Tuff Tits–the video at the jump is topically perfect because before the song starts, Tom goes “this song goes out to all of y’all, we all love each other, we all–shoot.”). I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, or more accurately I was seeing a handful of people that I wasn’t seriously dating, but whatever my love life status I am always down to talk about babies and houses and weddings. Always! I’m not a serial monogamist but I am a deeply rooted person, and shamelessly devoted to my punk townie lifestyle. What’s unique to Chattanooga’s punk scene is a sense of permanence. Punk in other places can be kind of transient by nature; people bounce around cities, people burn out and leave, people grow out of it. Chattanooga is a place where people grow into punk instead. A lot of punks own property, houses, businesses. They have families. This is their home. In a way that makes it more of a community than a “scene,” about people as much as it is about the music they make. Shit, I’ve never been in a band but I’m still loved and supported by the same people whose cassette tapes I’ve worn out. In this way, music and friendship go hand-in-hand here; shows are opportunities to gather with your loved ones, and gatherings with your loved ones almost always become shows.
Anarchtica is special but it’s closer to a real venue, with its well-used basement accommodations where a rotation of local bands practice regularly. Backyard punk manifests in even more informal ways. Memorial Day weekend I went to a barbecue as is standard procedure, but there was an acoustic show to go along with the potluck. So while going to town on grilled veggies and vegan sausages with homemade relish and a whole host of southern fare (allow me to sing you the gospel of gouda grits!), we all sat cross legged on the ground like ravenous kindergarteners, serenaded by the aforementioned Eric Nelson, brothers Matt & Marty Bohannon, and folk/Americana veteran Bill Fox. All four are incredibly talented musicians that have more than likely been making music longer than I’ve been alive, so it feels wild to have seen them all together while I stuffed hot dogs in my face and idly tugged weeds out of the ground. The Bohannons as a full band are pretty heavy rock n’ roll, but alternating between a solo and a two-piece, they sing country and folk with lyrics that range from silly to profound. I can barely do them justice with words of my own; I can only hope you’ll get to see them play sometime, because it’s actually criminal what lack of videos I could find online considering the length of their careers.
Eric Nelson actually played every show I will talk about here, which didn’t occur to me until I started writing about each one. He is the ubiquitous face of backyard punk in Chattanooga; he’s the man you call to play your barbecue, your basement show or your wedding. He and his wife are two of the most genuinely down-to-earth nice people I’ve ever met, to a point that it’s almost comical, like a sitcom gimmick. If you ask anyone who knows them, they’ve got a story or five about some incident of the Nelsons’ generosity and sweetness. What I love about what a positive person Eric is is that his songwriting reflects his sunny attitude, relentlessly hopeful and radiating warmth. I know when I’m feeling down I can always put on a Hidden Spots record to hear something uplifting from a friend. People relate that way to music all the time, because it’s hard to ask for reassurance from friends when you’re sad but it’s easy to put on a comforting album. I have both in one, not just in his music but so many others, and that’s priceless. With lyrics (thoughtfully modified for present children) like “unkindness is the effin enemy,” he narrated his way through how to be positive in a world that is difficult and dark sometimes by loving your friends, taking care of each other, and treating every day like it has the potential to be the best day of your life. During a song that goes, “I want more weddings / I’m so tired of funerals,” I started crying because I hadn’t realized until that moment that the last time I had been to a big gathering with many of the people present it had been a friend’s funeral the week before, and the next time I’d see a lot of them it would be a wedding the following week. His songs are so true to life in general but specifically our lives entwined, our lives in our little microcosm of a community, and that is so dear to me.
He got his wish for more weddings, because just five days later I saw him again playing at the reception of two friends. His set list for weddings is modified; less songs about survival, more songs about love. But his songwriting weaves together the two to leave them inextricable; one cannot have the former without the latter. Love is essential to survival.
It was a really fitting choice for those two friends to have other friends play music at their wedding reception. They got married at their pre-civil war era house in Wildwood, Georgia, out in the country in their sprawling front yard. After Eric, the rest of the musicians played country; Angela Rose and the Highway Kind and Blue River Hex took the stage (porch) for the rest of the evening, shifting from acoustic rock to more banjo and fiddle driven music, complete with a washtub bass for authenticity. Angela writes sweet, snappy country songs delivered with a Wyoming twang, and Blue River Hex has more of a bluegrass sound. Both are perfect for such an intimate setting, eating cupcakes and celebrating two people letting their love ground them. I snapped a terrible 15 second camera phone video of Angela’s cover of “Jolene” to send to [witchsong writer] Aly because I needed to share the experience with someone immediately; it wasn’t enough to wait to write about it. Angela Rose is witchsong material to a fault, and not just because of all her songs about breakin’ hearts. She’s the sort of friend I can sit and talk to for hours about how much we love Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift. She’s the girl in cowboy boots at a punk show who will gush with me about The Vampire Diaries, and I love that about her. Loving pop and country seems like it would be inherently anti-punk, but I think embracing the things you love without regard for coolness or social acceptability is exactly punk.
“Things which can be punk” is a wide net for me, but love, friendship, and tenderness are at the top of the list. Backyard punk encompasses all those things with its intimacy. Houses and yards feel like the most genuine setting for homegrown punk, more so than a bar or a music venue (not that I don’t adore our local dive bars–they’re special in their own ways). My first punk show in Chattanooga was at Anarchtica five years ago, and I think that I’ve retained a fondness for house shows for that reason. I saw a flyer for a show and had to ask a crust punk for directions; I rode my bike there after work in a hazy drizzle, introduced myself to a whole bunch of strangers, and smoked my first hand rolled cigarette. I was home, and I haven’t looked back since. Never before have I met people so kind and accepting, so full of love that they’re excited to bring new people into their fold so they can share in it too. It’s been an incredible experience to find out how music can beget community, and the ways a community can center itself around music. Now every spring I have a new kind of warmth to look forward to.