Back to Square One

by Jordan Green

There’s a music writer from Brooklyn reposing on a tatty couch in the anteroom of Square One, the spartan underground rock club in Greensboro’s Glenwood section, with a new pal from Chapel Hill. He’s planning to write about Mika Miko, a female punk band from Los Angeles that’s headlining tonight, and he’s marveling that the scene is taking place here rather than a brand-name venue like the Cat’s Cradle. “The publicist told me my name would be on the list, plus one,” he says. “Then I got here, and I found out the show was free.” That’s the underground for you: no VIPs or formal stratification, scant publicity, no cover charge and overwhelming turnout on a Wednesday night. One of the season’s freak showers is dropping a load of precipitation over the city, and lightning flashes in the distance. It’s 103.1 WUAG FM’s last show of the semester until next fall, and it’s thanks to the campus station’s budget that these quality touring bands are playing here at no cost to the audience. Don’t tell the budget writers at the NC House Appropriations Committee. At about 9 p.m. the Strange Boys from Austin, Texas are doing a sound check, and 20 or so fans huddle near the front as if the entertainment program is underway. There’s no bar in the club, which counts as another advantage for the budget-conscious fan. Budweisers and PBR tallboys, likely procured from Andy’s Pantry down the street, appear to be the beverage of choice. The Strange Boys live up to their billing. They play raw, bluesy garage rock and roll with a sense of desperation and thrill that sounds as if it were minted in 1965 or 1966. Think of a more artful Them, a more joyous 13 th Floor Elevators, the Grateful Dead before they were allowed in a recording studio or the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads album. Lead guitarist Greg Enlow extracts impossibly trebly, angular leads with a spare, unprocessed sound aided by only one pedal. Singer and rhythm guitarist Ryan Sambol plays with two pedals. The music sounds familiar, but the use of changing time signatures and the band’s synthesis of surf, honky tonk, rhythm and blues serves as a reminder that there’s yet a lot of territory left to explore in that loud, lo-fi sound. What completely sets the band apart are Ryan Sambol’s mouse-like vocals, which creep up in the mix with a wounded and feral intensity. They sure do look strange, and they hardly appear to be men. Ryan Sambol is short and thin, with a stubbly beard and coal-fire eyes.

Greg Enlow has long, greasy hair parted on the side. Philip Sambol, who plays bass, has brown curly hair that explodes from his head like a blender accident. The drummer, Matt Hammer, is the most ordinary looking of them all, somewhat athletic and fresh-faced. The Strange Boys receive appreciation, but the crowd surges to the front for the Coathangers, an all-female punk outfit from Atlanta whose members maintain a charming banter between songs, but anchor their vocals in an attitude of brattiness and a style harsh and atonal that is all the same more playful than angry. Like their fellow Georgians the B-52’s — and even REM in their early days — the Coathangers are every bit a dance band. There’s heavy organ wedded to pulsing bass, meaty guitar riffs and frantic, if loose drumming. The band seems to tumble headlong into songs amidst jokes and provocations, and even if they do the same routine every night it sounds fresh.

Thetime-honored punk ritual of crowd surfing was practiced during MikaMiko’s set at Square One on June 10. (photo by Jordan Green) They end on a song called “Cheap Cheap,” which features a delightful vocal dismissal, “I don’t like you.” “Thank you so much,” the singer says as the last note comes clattering down. “Y’all rule. That was fun.” Following the Coathangers’ set, the crowd spills out into the gravel parking lot. The rain hasabated, and is pooled in puddles hidden in the mottled darkness.Everyone seems to be smoking. Soon, most of them come back inside andpress to the front where everyone seems to be vying for a spot ineyeshot of the next band. The Brooklyn writer secures his spot, andreveals that while he was walking back to the convenient store toreplenish his alcohol, he received an offer to share a blunt with astranger. “When in Rome,” he muses. To say that Mika Mikosounds like Black Flag is no knock. They come out of the same southernCalifornia cauldron of tension, polyglot ethnicity and sun-strokeddiscipline. That Mike Miko applies the same formula, in whichBlack Flag reworked Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent through a new alchemyof discontent more than 25 years ago, is fine. It sounds great. Theguitar, bass and drums meld together in a brutal and taut fashion. Thesound is mostly chunky, with only the subtlest hint of melody. Anyguitar solos are hardly more than a hit and run, a string of notes hereand there that careen off the rhythm and never force it to expand. Themosh pit that takes form is also like thousands of others that havegone before it: rudimentary and unexceptional but completely inspiredand derived from its participants’ chemistry with each other. You can’tmanufacture this experience. As a music fan rapidly approaching the midway point of my thirties, that’s what I miss the most about the music of my youth. It’sa sense of community and the premise that the lines between theperformer and audience are blurred. There are no sight lines to speakof in Square One and literally no stage. The band members are bobbingand weaving in the midst of a writhing mass of dancers. From the back,it’s impossible to see anyone with an instrument, and a shoutedexhortation of “women to the front” could have come from an audiencemember or someone in the band; the distinction isn’t important. Themosh pit starts with sweaty bodies being crammed up against each otherwith some people craning forward from the back to get closer to theband, and others closer to the front flailing backwards in reaction.The front section is predominantly women, and some of them startshoving. The chemistry in the audience — like in the band — is right. Mostlystrangers, the audience members may share some values. There’s animplicit social contract in force in this intensely physical ritual: Noone cops a feel, and if anyone gets knocked down a helping hand isquickly extended. A young man wearing a fake leather fedoraand holding a can of beer wrapped in a plastic bag is bouncing lightlyin the center of the floor and rotating. Twelve-packs of Coors Lightand PBR stashed along the wall behind the soundboard are rapidlydepleting. The last song approaches. One of the band’s singers— it’s impossible to tell who — makes a request. “I want to see as manypeople crowd surfing as possible,” she says. “If you’re old, don’tworry about it. I’m old too.”