Bad Copy

Show Review

Anti-Flag, Tabula Rasa, and My Dad at AntiFest in Pittsburgh, PA

How will my cop-loving, Midwestern father fare at AntiFest?

Photo: Krista Gjestland

Trigger warning: Frank discussion of mental health. I promise, though, this is a happy story – eventually – and probably the weirdest show review I’ve ever done. 

I didn’t get along with my Dad growing up. Duh, right? We all hate our dads at some point, and I was a punk kid for crying out loud. It didn’t help that as an only child I was naturally closer to my Mom. I was born on her birthday (January 3, we accept presents!) and am as exactly like her as a child could possibly be, from our wildly curly hair and bespectacled vision to our unrelentingly stubborn attitude.

Unlike most teenagers my Dad is an ex-Marine who suffers from severe bipolar disorder. His disorder went undiagnosed for most of his youth – a product of a 1959 birth year and parents who feared an “abnormal” child more than the average parent. It wasn’t until after he married my Mom  – well into his 30s – that her social work training helped her to notice the telltale signs of a deeper issue than the “hyperactive disorder” diagnosis he was given as a child: his violent mood swings pendulated between fury, sweetness and an uncontrollable depression. The early years of my parents’ marriage – and my life – were marked by the revelation and continuing attempts at finding a solution for my Dad’s suffering.

I found punk rock in 2002 and was given my own mental health diagnosis (major depressive disorder, now called clinical depression) in 2003. Luckily, I had a nuclear family who understood mental health. Unluckily, I knew exactly what that toll looked like. By the time I was 13 I had built a resentment toward my Dad that I would eventually reconcile with age. I had found it hard to cope with my own diagnosis alongside his and we’d fight like hell. Add in an increasingly difference in opinions on social justice, and our house was a fire storm of arguing. My saint of a mother refereed some tremendous fights. Some of the worst included my then newly found opinions on militarism, nationalism, George W. Bush and this “communist” band I listened to all the time – Anti-Flag.

Flash forward 15 years and I get along with my Dad wonderfully. His more youthful opinions on social justice and nationalism were forged in a hot cauldron of the Marines and a rigidly Republican set of parents. His 28 years with my Mom and me have softened him, and with the help of both very dedicated doctors and my very dedicated Mom along with hard work from my Dad, his disorder has softened its grip as well.

All of this background is important because I decided to truly test how much my Dad has evolved and brought him along to cover AntiFest and that “communist” band in Pittsburgh. How would my cop-loving Dad react to “Fuck Police Brutality” now that it’s not blasting from my bedroom stereo, but from the stage?

I spent the week before making bets with my Mom – how long would he last each night? Would he even be up for night two? We made contingency plans and made sure the hotel had a decent TV selection (he’s not hard to please) just in case he didn’t feel up to hanging all night. Friday morning I packed him into my Honda CRV, along with any trailing worries I had about his ability to handle the tight quarters we were about to spend a lot of time in, and hit the relatively mundane drive from Michigan through Ohio to Steel City.

I love Pittsburgh and have only had the best of times there. It’s a gritty, down-to-earth, bustling, working class place that reminds me of home and the potential Detroit’s got coming to it. It actually turns out my Dad had never been, and his first surprise was how hilly the city actually is. He grew up in the Bay Area so I think he’d just been surprised to see hill-seated houses in a place beyond San Francisco.

We checked in to our hotel, swiped past a brewery for dinner, and headed over to Mr. Small’s Funhouse for night one of AntiFest. I prepped my Dad as best I could, playing him some Nightmarathons and The Penske File on the drive, and trying my best to explain Worlds Scariest Police Chases. The only live music shows he’d seen were Black Sabbath at DTE Energy Music Theatre a few years ago and the hand full of times we’ve taken my Mom to see this Irish band she really likes. But here we were in a 150-person room, with monitors propped on chairs in front of the stage and a bar full of cheap PBR. The test was on!

I introduced him to everyone I knew, propped him up at the bar with a diet pop (he doesn’t drink anymore), grabbed my own PBR, and headed to the stage for Nightmarathons, who opened up the night with their gritty, muted brand of pop-punk.

Before the second band started I checked in – “How ya holding up, Pops?” Eyes wide, with a huge grin: “It runs through your veins; It’s really cool ya know.” Okay, I think I know what that means – it’s positive at least. And he was having a good time. I grabbed a new PBR and headed back up for Swiss Army‘s high energy, indie-punk set.

I continued the night in the same fashion – heading to the stage for photos and back to the bar in between sets. Actually, not very different than most shows except my Dad was waiting at the bar. After about my third check in, I started finding him chatting up anyone who would answer his millions of questions such as “What’s your day job?”, “Are you in a band?”, “Are you wearing ear plugs?”

Fellow Detroiters and the newest addition to AF Records’ roster – Day Jobs – was up next, and thus beget my sing along portion of the night. Their new single “Quit Your Day Jobs” is a certified jam, and especially cathartic for those of us with 9-to-5s back at home. Their self-titled EP releases on AF this week, and they’re easily one of the most exciting new bands out of Michigan right now.

I’d hyped myself (and by proxy my Dad) up on the drive down for The Penske File, who are steadily climbing my favorite bands list. I drunkenly cried along through most of their set at this year’s FEST and can’t get enough of their high-energy, non-stop showmanship set. My Dad’s response was not inaccurate: “They went wild, man!” They’re supposedly working on new material for 2018, let’s hope those rumors are founded.

Up next was Ma Jolie and the first reunion set of the weekend. The band broke up just after releasing their 2015 EP Jetpack Mailman on AF, so I was excited to catch them live for what I presume is the first and last time. Unfortunately one of their singers was out with pneumonia, so I left their set a little disappointed to not get the full effect but grateful to not get pneumonia – I’m barely recovered from my FEST flu.

Personal favorites Worlds Scariest Police Chases was next, claiming the title of “My Dad’s favorite band” for night one. My husband, and usual accomplice for these sort of ventures, thinks I may have been influencing my Dad’s vote a little. But honestly, I haven’t introduced anyone to WSPC who didn’t love their quirky, high-energy cop shtick.

The night progressed with Edhoculi.  Their no-frills, just music approach to their live show could come off as unentertaining if it weren’t for their wildly intense math-prog take on punk. Typically I have little patience for songs lasting longer than three minutes, but their lengthy tunes kept me engaged with intricate melody and exuberant stage manner. All of that made for a fun band to photograph as well. I found out later my Dad had been asking someone in the band all about their recent trip to Europe; He had a hard time understanding that most people have day jobs and then save all their PTO and vacation time for touring.

The last retired band of night one, Tabula Rasa, rounded out the evening. They’ve been defunct now for about 12 years, and a band I’d only known vaguely from the Fueling the Flames of Revolution Sampler A-F Records put out in the early 2000s. They were a great throwback to late 90s emo, before the sub-genre became wildly poppy and radio friendly. I tried to explain the sub-genre to my Dad at this point, but it was well past his usual bed time and there weren’t enough diet pops in the world to keep him going. With only a song or two left, I paid our pop-and-PBR tab and we gave ’em the ole Irish Goodbye.

As we drove back to our hotel, I grilled my Dad trying to get his take on the night. His observations reminded me so much of my own, 15 (yikes) years ago: “It’s not like mainstream bands that try to outdo each other; each band member was watching the other bands play.” It was funny to hear him be so surprised by something that’s pretty normal to me now and reminded me a lot of my first few forays into live punk shows. Perhaps, it seemed, I’m more like my Dad than I usually admit.

**AntiFest night 1 photos by Krista Gjestland below:

Since doors for night two didn’t open until 4 p.m., we spent Saturday morning putzing around the Shadyside neighborhood our hotel was in. As we wandered in and out of little shops and bookstores, my Dad wouldn’t stop talking about how much fun he’d had the night before: “I can see why you guys do this all the time,” he said. “Everyone’s so friendly.”

I couldn’t help but to compare us, and our individual struggles with mental health. I was afforded so much luxury than he was. I was diagnosed early and had parents who were supportive and understanding. I found a genre of music and a community along with it that became a home, a refuge and a compass for how I navigated the parts of myself I couldn’t trust. I struggled with my relationship with my Dad, but had he been given a place to call his own like I was I imagine he’d have blossomed among this community of misfits just like (I think?) I have.

The evening’s venue was another new one for me – Mr. Roboto Project -but I knew they were a DIY space were likely to not have food. Against my better judgement I took my Dad to a Primanti Bros because I knew he’d love the “french fries on sandwich” concept.

One thing of note about Mr. Roboto is their amazing, wonderfully photogenic lights. No weird blue-red-green rotating lights or shadow-inducing floor lights: The stage was surrounded by LED string lights. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not really a photographer. These lights helped me fake my way through this one.

The evening’s first band, A Lovely Crisis, is one that makes you feel bad about what you’ve accomplished so far. They’re energetic, fiery, and young. When they released their debut full length, Where Do You Stand?, on A-F in 2016 this four-piece was barely out of high school. Meanwhile, it’s taken me three weeks to finish this review. I’m old and slow!

Mace Ballard, another 2016 signing from A-F, brings a heavy dose of melody and hardcore-inspired riffs. Anti-Flag’s Chris #2, who produced the band’s last release Lanterns, joined them for their final song “Sculptors and Sailors.”

It was between Mace Ballard and the next band, Lawn Care, that my Dad had fully integrated himself in the back of the room. Checking on him was pointless because he was busy talking to everyone else.

Lawn Care turned out to be my Dad’s favorite, and I can’t blame him. The band is full of energy and stage presence with a ska-ish vibe more along the lines of Arrogant Sons of Bitches than Less Than Jake. It’s hard not to want to sing along when the horn section is emphatically scream-singing when not actually playing their instruments. Fun is contagious, ya know?

Hardcore punks Soul Glo was the only band on the bill not actually signed to A-F Records and one of the bands I heard most on everyone’s lips post-FEST. Seeing them live, I understood why. Raw and full of power, they’re a force on stage despite barely addressing the audience. If you’re interested in hardcore at all, don’t sleep on this band – I’d bet they’re going to be on a lot of bills in 2018.

By the end of Soul Glo the semi-sparsely filled room had started to look like a sold out show.

I probably wouldn’t have gotten through 2016 without keeping Endless Mike and the Beagle Club‘s Saint Paul on a constant loop, so I was thrilled to see them on this bill. Their dynamic and exuberant show picked up the energy in the room and exploded it into sheer joy. Joined for a time by The Homeless Gospel Choir, the packed stage radiated like a church service rather than a punk rock show. By the end of their set, the room was properly packed and I was officially unable to check in on my Dad, so I sent him a quick text. “You OK back there?” Dad doesn’t like crowds much. “Yes, chilling. Just talking to people.” Good enough for me!

I saw the night’s reunion band, The Code, open up for the Suicide Machines at St. Andrew’s in Detroit during one of the latter’s many “final shows” around 2009 or 2010, I think. The last bit of new music from the band came in 2004, so they’ve been out of circulation for a while. It was obvious Pittsburgh has missed them in their absence; the pretty lifeless crowd erupted for The Code. It took until the third-to-last band for someone to start any sort of pit (which my Dad had been waiting very eagerly to see IRL).

The last two bands on the bill were listed as secret, including the headliner. But it doesn’t take much to assume that Anti-Flag would headline a festival celebrating 20 years of their own record label. The second-to-last was a brief appearance by The Homeless Gospel Choir. He performed a trio of songs including “Normal,” one of his new tracks from an EP and LP of the same title earlier this year.

Anti-Flag took the stage in an abnormally subdued manner. Some of the trappings of their usual live show such as high jumps and socio-political polemics were toned down. It felt less like a stage act and more like a homecoming. It was an awesome and intimate setting, and one I hadn’t experienced in the ten-plus times I’ve seen them play before.

Anti-Flag is a live band; if you were ever on the fence about them all you need is to see them live to be pushed over the edge. If you’ve seen their live act, you’re familiar with the fervent tenor that goes along with it. As they played “Fuck Police Brutality,” I realized I didn’t give my Dad a single hint about their live show. As the crowd around me threw middle fingers as they chanted along, I couldn’t help but laugh as I imagined my Dad in the back. And then I laughed even harder as I imagined my 13-year-old self seeing this moment.

Turns out my Dad actually moved pretty close for Anti-Flag – enough to see me (later he’d ask, “Do you always get that close?” in reference to my one foot on the stage stance). He never mentioned if he threw his own middle finger, but he did introduce himself to the people around him when the band had everyone shake hands and be friends. He was especially thrilled by jeers of “Fuck Donald Trump.” He couldn’t believe how much he’d heard that out loud over the weekend, he said later with almost a girlish whisper.

As I drove back to Michigan the next morning my Dad requested a few run-throughs of Anti-Flag’s newest full length, American Fall, and a few run-throughs of his new free CD – that same Fueling the Flames sampler I’d discovered in my youth – before finally succumbing to the weekend’s flurry and falling asleep.

Growing up, it was easy for me to see my Dad as a villain in my youthful journey toward a place of my own. But really, he was just looking for answers the same as me. We were both scared and confused by mental illnesses. Left without answers or a diagnosis, he did what so many of us do: self-medicated and tried to have a normal life, hiding behind a suburban Americana that only exists on TV. Managing a mental illness like bipolar disorder only to find out your already rebellious and obstinate daughter has clinical depression must have been tough, especially when she’s plastering your small town with anti-Iraq War leaflets.

A few fateful mix CDs at 13 saved me from a fate like my Dad’s, and for that – and more – I’m so grateful for punk rock. It gave me a sense of place, a way to navigate a brain I can’t fully trust and more friends than I deserve. And now it’s given me something else to share and connect with my not-so-villainous Dad on.

So far, he’s downloaded Die For the Government, A New Kind of Army, and American Fall. Maybe Terror State will change his life like it did mine.

**AntiFest night 2 photos by Krista Gjestland below:

**Final note: Thanks to everyone who was nice to my Dad, answered his questions and made him feel as welcome as I always feel. Thank you, especially, to Chris Stowe and the AF Records team who are always so kind and welcoming to me and make Pittsburgh feel like a second home. Come to Detroit soon.

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