The Shame of Middle Age

I could be their dad, and I think I’m about six months (probably nine) behind the young crowd who’ve known of them for at least twelve. I don’t care, because lag time is relative now. Or at least I tell myself that because finding music takes time, and the sheer volume of what’s available sometimes overwhelms when I’ve got tea to drink before my sensible bedtime. That’s a joke, but only just. I don’t feel like an old guy, but the skeleton hurts sometimes in ways it did not when I was twenty.

On Monday, February 19th, over schnitzel, and burger, and beer at Doug Fir, my middle-aged best friend and I discussed that the place seemed empty, and it would be, uh, a shame (sort of sorry about that one) if the band didn’t pull a big audience. They’re shame (lower case ‘s’, I believe, but it probably doesn’t matter), and they are, in the most apt usage of the word I’ve ever deployed, brilliant.

The debut album Songs of Praise was released in January, and could not have been made in America. They are quintessentially British, with obvious lineage to Mark E. Smith and the Fall, Blur, and are maybe not too far away from something late-80s/early-90s mid-English indie. You’ll have your own reference points, but those are accurate enough.

My friend and I were both immediately smitten after hearing their One Rizla a month ago. It’s anthemically perturbed without being pompous, and intelligent without being academic. The whole of the album is equally grand, smart and seething.

So, after a search and seeing they were playing Portland, I snapped up tickets for a rare ‘school night’ show. Monday came, and as I do for Sunday-through-Wednesday night shows, bargained with myself that ‘it’ll be OK that I’ll be exhausted tomorrow at work, but I’ll go to bed early tomorrow night and be fine by Wednesday morning…really, you will!’Well, it didn’t work. Again. But, on Thursday night, still tired, I could not care less.

They’re a group of five twenty-ish Londoners, and right now are touring the US for the first time. They’re angry and agitated, a little snotty, a bit sweary, and have been tagged by (mostly) UK press as the bright young things for guitar music. One article a few weeks ago called them “Britain’s Most Exciting New Band.” So many – so many! – bands release debut albums and are touted for their ability to make music feel alive and new again. This time it’s different because shame have palatable white-hot charisma that was tepid in almost all those other bands that have come and gone in the last fifteen years. They are that great.

Yet, shame don’t do anything distinctively new. Really, they don’t, and that’s not meant a slight. It’s innocuous fact. Mark Twain said there are no new ideas, just old ideas seen through a new kaleidoscope, or something like that. This is the case with shame, and their ‘scope sparkles. That I just referenced Mark Twain would make it an accurate assumption that my friend and I started the concert sitting in the back of the venue sipping our artisanal beer comfortably in chairs because we need back support. As it always has been, it’s great to go shows, and even better when there’s a place to sit. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. That sit didn’t last. It couldn’t with shame.

They walked on stage, the crowd applauded, and the relationship began. Before the end of the first song, the energy in the place had exploded. They are a wall of guitars, but they’re equally stompy. We forfeited the chairs by the end of the first song, but they were never claimed by anyone.

The aggression and agitation shame deliver, and their aforementioned seethe is tempered by enough nuance in the songwriting (and playing) that you know they actually do care. And f course they do, as they should. In 2018, any sort of punk aroma and snottiness feels dead on arrival, and maybe that’s because we all have smartphones now. The ability to move on to the next exciting thing is just a swipe away. Everything is consumed faster now, and when so many attempt to get attention by being clever, shame succeed because they have a temper and it’ legitimate, honest, and affirming.

Shame write songs that at first come off rude, like the euphemistic Gold Hole, and other lyrics like “My nails ain’t manicured. My voice ain’t the best you’ve heard. And you can choose to hate my words. But do I give a f***?”

But then they’re also smart enough to end the same verse with “Socks are old and shoes are broke. Lungs are tired ’cause they’re filled with smoke. Wallet’s empty I’m going broke. But I’m still breathing.”

You see, they add the hope there at the end. It’s not cloying, but it is there, and it’s genuine and believable in the way it’s delivered. They’re a band living out their growing pains in front of some of us who have already lived those same pains, and are going through new ones now. The only difference is we’re older with a relationship or two behind us, a kid or two with us, and a mortgage that owns us. It’s the same agitation, only aged and more refined. They don’t come across as singing to or at us, as much as they are sharing it with us. They’re as honest a band as I’ve ever heard, and it makes me wonder what it’s like to be twenty something listening to them now. It must be euphoric to see your peers make such music.

The band was tight, confident, and completely connected with each other behind singer Charlie Steen. The four of the band with instruments were totally absorbed into their own world and didn’t overtly interact or make eye contact with the 50 or so of us creeping closer, song by song, to the stage. Steen, on the other hand, had us his palm from the start. He has said in interviews that the “Idea of a rockstar is offensive.” If he believes that, he has some explaining to do, because if there was a rock star frontman, it’s him.

Maybe he does believe that statement, and maybe because of that belief he is a star. He’s 20, fidgety, confrontational, and absolutely magnetic. Two songs in, he took off his shirt. Three songs in, he sneeringly fondled his nipples. Six songs in, with the band musically solid and physically berserk behind him, he stood at the edge of the stage both flirting with, and seemingly despising us all. His charm is undeniable, and we all moved closer.

The focus is naturally on him, but they are unmistakably a band. Their combined abandon and commitment is gravity that pulled everyone to the stage. There were moments near the end when the crowd felt like we were unravelling. He knelt at the edge of the stage and rattled the microphone like the rattle of a snake while staring at us like Dad after we’d walked in past curfew. His confidence belies his age.

He jumped down amongst us for half a song, made his way to the back and pretend-anointed a few in the crowd. Most of the rest of us, I’m sure, were jealous. It was a silly moment during a show from a band with something to say, and I cannot imagine anyone else pulling it off so convincingly.

Watching a band so consumed with their youthful wit, and energized by their own commotion is invigorating. It magnified my own current middle ages, but was so mesmerizing that I also forgot time. The show was short at just under an hour. They didn’t play everything they’ve recorded, but it was perfect. The band acknowledge the crowd and left, while Steen walked the edge of the stage shaking and touching hands. If he despised us earlier, he seemed grateful then, and I can say without shame (actually, I am sorry for that one), that his right hand is soft.

Days later I was still tired from being out late. But, oh, was that worth it. If a band unmistakably in their zenith can make a guy (at least) chronologically-past his feel happy to be tired, then there is something to these five. It’s indisputable.

Having their record on in the next room brings me right back to the show. It’s loud, and thrilling, and I love it. But the tea has steeped, and I need to lay this skeleton down for the day. After hearing my phone announce that bedtime is nearing, I’ll finish this jasmine green and call it a night, resting assured that there are a group of young guys playing a show somewhere tonight and fighting the good fight better than anyone has in years. I’m proud of you, Dad…uh, Son.

Listen to Tasteless HERE

Listen to One Rizla HERE