Friday, February 06, 2015
Panorama: The joys of the Fugazi Live Series
In a recent post about the Paul Motian Trio, I wrote about spirit music, sound that feeds, and maybe even heals. My current obsession is Fugazi—kicked off by an excellent interview with drummer Brendan Canty, via The Trap Set, a new podcast hosted by Joe Wong, who happens to be my West Coast counterpart in the band Aa—and though the sound is very different, the effect, the aftermath of listening, feels similarly restorative.
It's common to speak of the uprightness of this band, whether in terms of how they resisted the evils of the business of music (or the often-barbaric practices that attend its live performance: moshing, crowd-surfing, etc.), or how they helped raise awareness re: the evils of government and commerce. And it's also, perhaps, in a sort of reverse-cliché way, common to speak about how their real contribution was a musical one, or how they were one of the most transformative live bands of their (or all) time.
What I don't hear a lot of, in terms of general Fugazi-ology, except among my closest friends, is appreciation for the meat and substance of the Fugazi experience, which is the songs. It's easy to forget, since the hoopla has died down—see this NPR piece and this New York Times article, both from 2011—that the Fugazi Live Series is still online and accessible to all. If you're not familiar with the endeavor, it's very likely the most extensive authorized single-band concert-download archive in the world. (Short of maybe the Dead, although I'm not even sure if they make their shows available direct to fans in such an accessible, no-b.s. format.) You don't have to mess with iTunes or any kind of tedious sign-up process; you just go in and browse the shows—all helpfully rated in terms of sound quality and equipped with a free sample track—and grab whichever ones you like for a suggested price of $5.
I'm nowhere near an authority on this archive—it would take years of dedicated listening and browsing to really get familiar—but I have zeroed in on particular favorite periods. The 2002 shows hold a special fascination for me. For starters, I can highly recommend the Boston gigs from April 19 (mislabeled in the URL and iTunes tags as May 19) and 20 of that year—also available as YouTube videos, here and here. I love the shows from this era simply because by this point, the band's final year of performance to date, Fugazi were drawing on their entire recorded output, all seven albums (well, six plus a pair of EPs that I came to know jointly as 13 Songs). What strikes me as I listen to these sets and others from 1995 (the year that one of my favorite Fugazi albums, Red Medicine, came out, and the year that I saw them live for the first time, at this St. Louis show; have just downloaded that, and it sounds incredible—I picture myself back in that room; and my friend/bandmate Joe told me he had a similar experience looking over this set list, from the first Fugazi show he attended, earlier in the same year; this Philly show is also a must) is that one of Fugazi's main contributions, and maybe the one that means the most to me, is their egalitarian approach to their own catalog. We all know that Fugazi didn't release proper singles (a couple scattered 7-inches, yes, but no actual singles, in the classic "airplay"-oriented sense) or videos, but beyond that, the degree to which they really stood by—as in performed live, consistently, and with passion and conviction—just about every song they ever put out is really striking.
Most bands of any longevity gradually whittle down their catalog, encapsulating entire periods with just a few songs sprinkled into their live sets. Fugazi refused to let their songs die. The main Fugazi Live Series search actually has a song selector, so you can track individual songs as they appeared in live sets throughout the band's career. Just for fun, I typed in "Burning Too," a track from 13 Songs (or from the Margin Walker EP, if you want to get technical), and, if I'm being honest, one of my least favorite Fugazi songs and not one I've heard fellow fans shout out as a particular favorite. Sure enough, there are eight pages of results, stretching from 1988 to 2001. My point is that Fugazi put their entire weight behind everything they released. Yes, of course, the band had what you might call hits—"fan favorites" is probably more accurate—songs like "Waiting Room," "Bad Mouth," "Suggestion" and "Merchandise," songs that every Fugazi fan, however casual, knows by heart, but in terms of how they operated, especially near the end of their performing lifespan so far, they treated their entire catalog with equal care, did away with the oppressive hierarchy of "greatest hits" and "deep cuts" that ends up polluting the catalogs of so many great bands (Zeppelin, for one; how wonderful it would be to revise "classic rock" history and do away with the idea that this monster band's masterful, meaty output ought to be reduced to 10 or so radio staples). So at the best of these Fugazi performances, you get the early material colliding off the late, as though the band had placed their entire catalog on shuffle. But of course this is live and real and organic. We've all heard about how the band didn't use set lists and how they all had to be prepared to unleash pretty much any one of their songs at any time, which is a pretty staggering notion once you really think about it, especially if you've ever had the experience of being in a band and dusting off material you haven't played in years; the recall / muscle memory is often pretty appalling.
I love how, in the second Boston show mentioned above, the band uses 1993's In On the Kill Taker (another album I adore, not that there's a Fugazi album I don't feel that way about) as a center of gravity, starting off the show with two of that album's most rousing songs, the Ian MacKaye–sung rager "Facet Squared" and the Guy Picciotto–sung partially a cappella masterpiece "Rend It," and sprinkling the set with various other IOTKT gems, like "Public Witness Program" and "Last Chance for a Slow Dance" (maybe my single favorite Fugazi song), while also making room for plenty of material from the then-new Argument album, as well as two brilliant Joe Lally–sung songs in a row ("Recap Modotti" and "By You"), a couple 13 Songs oldies (notice how "Waiting Room" is sort of thrown unassumingly in the middle there; no "Let's encore with our best-known song!" hoopla here) and Steady Diet of Nothing closer "KYEO" to end the set.
If you know all these albums by heart, the effect—the thrill of "What song are they going to play next?" and "How will it play off the one before and the one after?"—is a profound one. You start to see Fugazi's whole catalog as this glorious 360-degree panorama. The fast songs, the slow songs, the Guy songs, the Ian songs, the Joe songs, the instrumentals (dig "Number 5," from the "Furniture" single, which opens the 4/20/02 Boston show). It's all material—to be used, to be played, to be savored. No song privileged over any other. No staples—songs that have to be played at every show or the audience will go home unhappy. You create, you amass and then you just play, from the heart, whatever song wants to come out at that time, in that city, under that set of conditions. Yes, the $5 door price and the outspoken political stance were radical, but to me, this attitude toward one's catalog is even more so. You aren't writing a bunch of songs just so you can hit the jackpot with one or two, sell a million copies of those and then populate your albums with all the filler. You're standing by everything you create, letting none of it go to waste. And you're keeping your legacy pure, because every single one of those albums stands up, all the way through. As do the shows themselves. Each one has its own logic, its own arc, its own emotional and intellectual journey, its own story. I have a feeling I'll be playing in the Fugazi Live Series sandbox for years to come.