It’s been almost five decades now since Jefferson Airplane asked for volunteers to get out in the street. Where at one point American popular music could be relied on for a soundtrack that catalyzed the grassroots groundswell decrying racial segregation and our unpopular wars, overtly political rock ‘n roll seems to have become unfashionable. Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello raged for eight years against the Clinton machine, but turned off their amps through the invasion of Iraq. In 2005, Pearl Jam hardly played a full set without impaling a rubber mask of President Bush on a mic stand, but since Trump took office it seems that Eddie Vedder’s been talking about nothing but his hometown’s World Champs, the Chicago Cubs (even if it’s sorta hard to blame him). Anecdotally, at least, it feels sometimes like the days of abundant rock and hip hop that expressed our collective frustration with our dysfunctional institutions, unaccountable abuses of power, unjust policy systemic socioeconomic disease seem to have waned. Hashtags have replaced hands in the air, and if our revolution will not be televised, well at least we can always binge-watch Season 6 of House Of Cards instead.
About that, the Downtown Boys have a few questions to ask you, loudly. The Providence punks brought their kinetic choral rock and roll to Underground Arts on Thursday night with all the energy and swagger of the Dead Kennedys, and the tasteful touch of brass that would make the late Poly Styrene proud.
“Has anyone seen a beautiful Italian-American man in a blue jumpsuit?” Vocalist Victoria Ruiz took the mic before their set in search of sax player Joe DeGeorge, who hadn’t followed the crew onto the stage yet. “Ever?,” a fan asked in reply. “Yes,” confirmed guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, with a smirk. DeGeorge joined Ruiz and DeFrancesco in short order, waiting on the stage with bassist Mary Regalado and their newest member: Philly drummer Joey Doubek of Pinkwash. The five of them stomped through the entirety of their latest LP Cost Of Living, their third record and first on Sub Pop, between tracks checking in with setlists they scrawled out on paper plates before the show. For an encore: a Spanish cover of the Pretenders’ “Back On The Chain Gang,” and their uniquely branded punk-rock edition of Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” during which Ruiz bounded down through the venue floor to lead a two-minute dance party and embrace several fans.
All the many well-meaning comparisons to their trailblazing rock ‘n roll forbearers aside, one of the things that serves to set The Boys apart — aside from the inimitable spirit and infectious, anthemic material they write and play — is the obvious love and joy that they bring to share along with it, and the jubilation they’re able to convey makes it difficult to resist wanting to share it back. There’s a level of vitriol characteristic to politically-minded punk rock, snarling spitefulness to fuel the fury and a mythology rife with empty, dead-eyed gazes, stiff middle fingers and cold black hearts. In place of that, though, the short soliloquies Ruiz delivers before her songs sound more like a pep talk from a coach trying to get her team to go out and play their best game than to put a brick through a storefront window. It’s almost like she’s not asking for “Anarchy In The UK” here, but for some civility in the US instead.
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