Taking the stage to a blaring Danny Elfman-esque gothic hymn, the Alkaline Trio donned their trademark black attire, with accents of reds and grays. They stood momentarily silent before a sold-out Trocodero Theatre in front of a giant banner bearing their skull and heart logo. The small venue nestled deep in Old City Philadelphia almost seemed to tremble with anticipation, as the 'Trio' hasn't toured to promote a new disc since 2000.
The crowded floor was largely made up of new faces - people who've very recently had their first taste of the band. ("Like, ohmigod!!!! They're totally punk rawk!) These younger fans were mashed hard against the barricades, much like cheese about to be grated. There they stood, wide-eyed and breathless, waiting for their new found obsession to start the show.
Opening with the first three songs of Good Mourning in order, these "newbies" got what they wanted: songs they knew from the new release, in an order they recognized. Sure, playing new material is the key to the promotion of a new record, but the Trio already has a large fan base (mostly sitting at the bar upstairs) that has followed them since their Asian Man days. No need to sell them on the Trio, they already know.
It has to be hard for a band to try and cater to two such different groups of people, yet they managed to pull it off magnificently.
The first few songs were new tracks, but the band managed to sneak in a few oldies before continuing with the new material. Looking around as he sang, Singer/Guitarist Matt Skiba smiled as he saw the overcrowded venue come to life with the first few bars of "I Lied My Face Off" from their self-titled EP on Asian Man (1997). The noisy youngsters on the floor momentarily fell silent as the Trio's "veteran fans" upstairs at the balcony bar took the lead. It's these fans that have supported the band for the long haul; these fans that have literally grown up with them; and it's these fans with which the Trio may have the most to lose.
On the balcony bar full of mid 20 to 30 year old fans, it could be overheard throughout the beer-laden crowd that many were disappointed with the new release. Comments like "…their sound has changed, and not for the better…" and "…I hope they don't suddenly become conceited arena rock stars," were common. Jaded fans like these know exactly what could potentially happen when this kind of band receives the amount of publicity Vagrant has provided, and many were of the opinion that this would be among the last of the small venue shows the Trio would perform for a long while. I couldn't help but agree with the latter observation. The first half, however, is another story.
Skiba, apparently, is aware of this fear and may feel the same way. Between songs, he thanked the crowd for buying the new record, but was sure to make his gratitude to the fans who own the older discs even more clear. He and the rest of the band know very well that they owe much of their success to the long time fans.
Now, the question must be posed: would mainstream success be such a bad thing? Of course not. With success, the Trio gets heard, the records sell, and they make a name for themselves. Unfortunately in most cases, with big time promotion and arena touring comes the loss of the personal "they're just like us" feeling that made their now-of-legal-age fans adore them initially.
However, it must be taken into consideration that stardom has not -and probably will not- go to the band's head, and that may explain why the masses have embraced them so whole-heartedly. They're real, regular guys. No bullshit. We like that.
Even after the shows when the screaming girlies make their best attempts at persuading Skiba to spend some time alone with them, he appears more than a little surprised at the attention he gets. Bassist Dan Andriano and drummer Derek Grant are no different in their responses.
Despite the band members' casual attitudes, their impending ascent to big time fame was especially evident at their performance at Asbury Park, NJ's Skate and Surf Festival (4/27/03), where several 16 year olds in the crowd could be heard screaming "Matt! I wanna have your baby!!" Apparently, he's become everyone's ideal man, just because he sings and plays guitar. Typical, yet annoying.
Personally, I give the guys a lot of credit. It's got to be hard to keep your wits about you when you're thrust into the media spotlight the way they have been. Just within the last two to three months, the Trio has had appearances on the Conan O'Brien talk show, Alternative Press magazine's cover, Kerrang!, Rolling Stone and countless others. Vagrant's endless promotion strategies have definitely been effective in spreading the word about the band's new release, but it's the band members themselves that are responsible for their cool demeanor. No amount of publicity or agent work can compensate for that, and here's where they shine as genuine people.
Arena rock stars, my ass. Few people are more grounded than these three gentlemen.
In spite of the usual indie disgust of mainstream success and the dubious attitude of some of the older Trio fans, it cannot be said that the band's performance at the Trocodero this eve wasn't stellar.
Because it was.
The Trio's punk/pop sensibility and their style of incorporating morbid themes without overbearing digital assistance (i.e., NIN) gives them a thick, tangible feel, almost as if you could grab onto the sound waves and pull.
About halfway through the set, Skiba announced to the crowd "This will be the last of the new shit, I promise." One could feel the upstairs crowd's anticipation and excitement shoot through the roof with this comment. Immediately after making the statement, Skiba made good on his word.
Rounding out their performance of the new tracks with old favorites like "Cringe," "Crawl," "Tuck Me In," "Clavicle," and "My Friend Peter," the old and new fans came together in a heaving mass of soon-to-be sore throats and flailing arms. For a short while, it looked as though the barricades might topple over and the crowd would expand to the actual stage front, as had been the tradition at this venue for so many years. But alas, it was not to be.
Departing the stage after about an hour's set, the Trio quickly returned for a 3-song encore. As Skiba asked the crowd what they would like to hear, two quite intoxicated ladies (whom I had met whilst sitting at the upstairs bar) leapt from the balcony to the stage and accosted him, snatching the mic away to screech "RADIO!!!"
Skiba smiled and chuckled in disbelief at the stunt as the girls were pried from his body and escorted offstage.
"Geez," he remarked. "You climb out of the balcony, risk life and limb… I mean, it's kind of like we have to play it after all that."
Closing with "97," (another track from their self-titled Asian Man release) Skiba sat on the edge of the stage, just inches away from the anxious reaching fingertips of the now sweaty and tired fence fodder. His proximity seemed to recharge them, and it was evident in the smile on his face that despite his dark and brooding outward image/stereotype, he quite enjoys the rapport he has with fans. He's not all stone and bitterness, folks.
So, what can be said about the Trio? Well, for one thing, they're something refreshingly different and palpable. All apologies go to the angry indie fans who feel as if the Trio should remain some ridiculous untold secret. Sorry folks, but music this good needs to be heard.
If for no other reason, those kids should find solace in the fact that the Trio's influence may mix up the increasingly cyclical, boring and redundant sound that the pop/punk/rock genre currently possesses. They are a very welcome breath of fresh air.
As pleased as I might be with the new release, it's clear that no plastic CD, photo shoot or paper article can ever do justice to the sound and chemistry of a live performance in all its black, white, and blood-red glory. Regardless of the Trio's fate with, or acceptance by the commercial music community, they've established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
They're not like anything or anyone else out there, and they completely deserve the recognition for which they've worked so hard… even if the indie kids are mad.
Michlle Lawlor is a Contributing Writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.