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Sharp Darts: Punk on the Inside

No Age proves it's the spirit that matters, not the clothes or the chords.

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When drummer-vocalist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall, aka LA duo No Age, walked into the AV-aerie last Tuesday and started taping their T-shirts to the wall over the merch table, you could tell they were exhausted. They burn a phenomenal amount of energy onstage, and they'd already played once that night, at a free show to help promote a new indie-leaning MP3-and-merch site called Shockhound. Now they were about to play again, as the not-so-secret headliner on a bill with Soft Circle, Lichens, and Love of Everything.

Despite their fatigue, though, they delivered one of the most transformative live sets I've seen in years. When I found Chris Thompson of Red Eyed Legends in the crowd, I told him I thought it was the best punk show of the decade. He nodded, and though I'm not sure if he really agreed or if he'd simply been swept up by the electricity in the room, I do know that I still feel the same way now that I've come down.

I've been to shows where the crowd was just as rowdy, the music was just as good, or the sense of community was just as strong, but I'd never seen one that nailed all three like this. Every so often a band reconnects with the power that made rock so life changing 50 years ago, and it makes the music and the scene feel brand-new and full of promise.

Even before No Age arrived the show was extraordinary. A crowd of maybe 150 kids, alerted to No Age's presence on the bill by the band's blog, the AV-aerie's MySpace bulletin, or old-fashioned word-of-mouth, had turned up looking to go nuts, but when I walked in they were chilling out to the blissful drone of Lichens, aka Robert Lowe, and half of them were sitting rapt on the floor—in contrast to the typical Lichens set at the Bottle, where the crowd chatter is loud enough to compete with the quieter parts of the songs. Then Soft Circle, Hisham Bharoocha's one-man act, took the stage and flipped the mood. His deep grooves, built from loops of drums and baritone guitar, aren't far removed from the heady weirdness of his old band Black Dice, but they inspired more riotous, joyful dancing than I've ever seen at a show by an allegedly experimental band.

The audience is clearly prepared to freak the fuck out when No Age finally comes on, and when the band rip into their set at chest-rattling volume the entire front half of the room explodes into a mass of bouncing bodies with a mosh pit at its center. After dying out almost everywhere but the hardcore and metal scenes, where innovations like the "wall of death" have upped the odds of real injury, the mosh pit has come back to indie rock—and here it feels friendlier and more cooperative, less a tough-guy contest than a spontaneous expression of "this is so awesome let's jump around."

At this point I notice two things. One is the demographic split, with the 25-plus segment of the audience in a broad semicircle around the under-21s with Xs on their hands. I go to a lot of all-ages shows, and I don't recognize any of the younger kids—there's a real sense of two groups coming together. The other is the shortage of amateur photographers. I see a couple flashes early in the set, but after that hardly anyone is taking pictures. Digital cameras have turned concerts—especially buzz-band concerts like this one—into excuses for a certain class of fan to beef up their Flickr accounts or pad their blogs with photo posts. But there's nobody here who's only watching the show on his camera's LCD screen. I get the feeling nobody is taking time out to update his Twitter feed either.

Between the high percentage of kids in the crowd and the absence of the arms-folded detachment that's become the norm in the indie scene, the show feels almost like a basement gig or set at Michigan Fest. Though No Age are commonly considered indie rock or hipster music, to my mind they're probably the best punk band going—which isn't to say they look or sound anything like punks. They dress pretty plainly and don't affect any sort of confrontational stance, and while their music occasionally approaches the breakneck speed of hardcore, they're just as likely to choose a nonthreatening tempo or spread out into dreamy, dirty psychedelic instrumentals. And neither of them plays with the tight punch of classic punk—Spunt favors washes of crash cymbal, and Randall uses enough distortion and echo to reduce his guitar tone to a smear.

But to the extent that punk is about shattering fossilized aesthetic rules, creating community, and winding your fans up till they're so loaded on endorphins that they dance like they don't care what happens to their bodies, No Age is punk as hell. People are embracing each other in the pit when their favorite songs start.

Maybe a dozen tunes into the set it becomes apparent that No Age are treating the show as an endurance match with the audience—and the audience is getting more nuts, not less, the longer they play. They start doing covers—the Gun Club, G.G. Allin—as a way of rationing the original material they have left. They take a stab at the Misfits' "Where Eagles Dare" and dudes swarm the stage, dancing, crowd surfing, picking up tambourines, and singing along. A shirtless guy with a beard kisses Randall on the face.

Then it's back to a No Age song, and the crowd somehow goes even crazier. Randall crowd surfs. Hisham Bharoocha crowd surfs. The band plays "Chinese Rocks." Spunt finally announces "One more song," and it's my favorite, "Teen Creeps." Some of the people who've left the pit dive back in, and the mass of bodies radiates energy so contagious that everyone in the room—even the half of us who aren't jumping all over one another—can feel it. The band decides to play one more, and it looks like they might win the endurance match. The pit's down to half strength, and the people still left have to take two or three turns under each crowd surfer to give him a full ride.

"Fuck it," Spunt says. "One more." Finally this third "one more" actually is the last song. But the crowd's still buzzing, and when the sound guy plays "Mo' Money Mo' Problems" through the PA, a dozen people break into double-time dance moves.

Later I find Spunt hanging out by the merch table. You could throw him into the deep end of a pool and he wouldn't come out any wetter. I ask him to confirm something I started to suspect toward the end of the set, between "Chinese Rocks" and Randall's brief segue into "Sweet Child o' Mine." Were they actually playing every song they knew?

Spunt gives a tired, satisfied laugh. "We played a lot of songs we don't know."v

Care to comment? Find this column—and lots more pictures—at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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