The Shindig Music Festival, which returns to Baltimore for its second go-round Saturday, takes a different approach to booking than most rock fests. Instead of spreading its bets around, putting chips on as many subgenres as it can to pull in as many different tastes as possible, Shindig doubles down on one particular rock subgenre. To makes its strategy even riskier, it's a subgenre without an agreed-upon label.
Nonetheless, certain elements unify the most interesting acts on this year's line-up—Lucero, J. Roddy Walston, Fishbone, and Gogol Bordello—as well as the best acts on last year's roster: The Hold Steady, The Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. These are blue-collar rock bands who can bash out loud riffs and a stomping beat, but they're also bands willing to sing about the complicated challenges of the everyman life in their lyrics. And they're willing to draw on influences that flourished before they were born; they acknowledge that there was music before the Ramones and beyond the radio.
"I've always liked that kind of music," says Paul Manna, the Shindig's curator, "with a punk-rock attitude but with something to say. And all these bands have something to say. Someone may have great lyrics, but if they don't have that energy, it doesn't mean as much. That's why we don't have singer-songwriters here; they're fine in some contexts, but this is not that kind of festival. The same is true of bands who have a lot of energy but lousy lyrics. I'm looking for bands whose fans know all the lyrics and sing along with every song. That creates an energy in itself."
Manna, who founded 24-7 Entertainment, which promotes about 100 shows a year in the Baltimore area, has lived here all his life. He wanted to create a rock festival that reflected the character of his hometown.
"All of the artists from last year and this year share that common blue-collar culture," he adds, "a very DIY mentality and work ethic. That represents the character of Baltimore as well. These bands aren't mainstream or glamorous; 90 percent of them aren't played on the radio. They make their living by loading up their own vans and playing more than 200 dates a year. And I think that spirit translates well to Baltimore."
But what should we call these musicians who combine punk-rock muscle and campfire storytelling? Let's call them the E Street Punks.
In the liner notes for his "Greatest Hits" package, Bruce Springsteen described the origins of his song, 'Hungry Heart': "I met the Ramones in Asbury Park, and Joey asked me to write a song for 'em. I went home that night and wrote this. I played it for [manager] Jon Landau and, earning his money, he advised me to keep it."
What if Springsteen had allowed the Ramones to record 'Hungry Heart'? What would it have sounded like? It would have sounded a lot like the music at the Shindig Music Festival. It would have sounded like Joan Jett singing Springsteen's 'Light of Day' with a Ramones-like staccato attack at last year's festival; The Hold Steady playing stomping, sing-along 'Sequestered in Memphis' last year; Fishbone adding its own African-American funk-ska twist on 'Bonin' in the Boneyard'; Baltimore's J. Roddy Walston & The Business singing about 'Hard Times,' not as a Woody Guthrie-like lament but as an X-like counterattack.
These bands are rooted in punk's skeptical toughness, and that separates them from the overly earnest romanticism that sometimes afflicts Springsteen (and fellow travelers such as Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and Bob Seger). But the E Street Punks refuse to be limited by the boundaries of punk; they grab sounds and themes from everywhere: blues, hillbilly, books, and movies. They write real stories about characters who might be in the audience—or in the band. Those characters have a hell of a time balancing sobriety and jobs, romance and restlessness, and the songwriters refuse to give them an easy way out of their problems.
The result has been some of the best rock 'n' roll of this new century. This year's two best rock'n'roll studio albums, for example, have come from last year's Shindig acts: The Hold Steady's "Teeth Dreams" (Washington Square) and The Gaslight Anthem's "Get Hurt" (Island). And the year's best rock 'n' roll live album has come from this year's Shindig act: Lucero's "Live from Atlanta" (Liberty and Lament).
Serving up 32 songs from all its albums over two discs, "Live from Atlanta" provides the best possible introduction to the underrated Memphis band. Lucero always sounds better when it brings its horn section along on the road, and that was true when it played three nights at Atlanta's Terminal West last November, recorded for this album.
With saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson punching out soul-music riffs behind Rick Steff's juke-joint piano and the rhythm section's punk pummeling, the songs that seemed mere sketches on the early albums now sound fully fleshed out. Lead singer Ben Nichols has one of rock 'n' roll's great, gravel-throated growls, and he uses it to great effect not only on the fast, Saturday-night songs about drinking and loving but also on the Monday-morning songs about paying the price for the weekend. Lucero epitomizes everything essential about the E Street Punks at Shindig.
“There’s not a lot of flash to these bands; they’re not in car commercials,” Manna says. “They come out after their set, sign their CDs, and shake hands. They chose this route and they’re OK with it.” ν