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It’s ages since I’ve taken myself to a punk rock show; after the initial excitement of its birth in 1976, over time it’s gradually lodged itself firmly in the underground, creating a scene that appears impenetrable to the casual music fan.  I think this because the perception is that punk is moribund in it’s ways and hasn’t moved on much as a force since then. So it was with some trepidation and a little cynicism that me and photographer Shay Rowan went to the Witchwood arms in the town of Ashton to hear and see what passes for modern punk.    

Initially we meet and talk briefly to STP Records/Promotions guru Stu Taylor, and it’s refreshing to find someone with a complete absence of naked careerism and who’s definitely driven to do this for no other reason than he loves this music and the bands that play it.  He tells us about his record label and the gigs he sets-up throughout the Manchester area, though most of all he cannot stress enough how his job is made easy by the hardworking nature of all the bands he promotes. If fact Stu tells us that gigs like this would run smoothly even if he wasn’t present to oversee the event, and, when you think today involves seven bands from four countries and three continents, that’s some claim.  But it’s when you witness all the bands (and some of the audience) mucking in to share the chore of lugging instruments and equipment that you begin to realise there’s a community spirit here you rarely see at other gigs.

The opening salvo of the afternoon is fired by Wasted Life from Stoke-on-Trent.  Their singer is American and is called JJ, who we meet briefly before his bands set.  Again, just like Stu Taylor before him, you can’t fail to pick up on the passion these people feel for this music.  What is amazing is to then see the affable and friendly JJ, use this passion to immerse himself completely in the spit and snarl of his band’s music as he wails and hollers out his lyrics of anguish and privation. It’s also unusual to see everyone come and watch an opening band and take the time to listen to them. In my experience first bands on are faced with a wall of indifference and chatter so it’s good to see an audience give a new band given the benefit of the doubt.    

The next band to take the stage is One Man Stand and I would like to apologise profusely for not watching them. You see such was the friendly vibe of this gig; it was easy to start up a conversation with anyone at all.  As One man Stand hammered out their songs we spoke to Damion, lead singer from the Mardigras Bombers, who told us he comes from Darwin in Blackburn where there’s no scene to speak of so he’s excited to be given the chance to play today.  We then see the black clad Damien howl, scream and growl while prowling the small Witchwood stage, furiously ripping at the edges of his bands songs in an attempt to tear the skin from their bones so he can expose the beating dark hearts beneath.  Damion looks and acts like a man who’s ready to pull the pin from a hand grenade and lob it firmly in the direction of the crowd. The music is a subtle mix of the DNAs of punk and metal that’s led to the creation of a new beast that’s equal parts cold and calculating. Perhaps Darwin was right; perhaps it’s not the strongest that’ll survive, but those that can adapt.

As the day wears on what’s becoming apparent is the high levels of musical proficiency shown by all the bands gathered here today.  While it’s true that punk initially championed attitude over ability, and, it’s still true that a live performance should be less a display of skill and more an outlet for the heart and soul, all the bands here have spent time learning the best way to extract the maximum amount of emotion from their instruments.  This is none more obvious when the next band DragSTER begin their set by angrily gunning the engine of their opening song, signalling to everybody to either climb on board and strap themselves in with the band, or get the fuck out of the way unless you want tire tracks all over your face. Fronted by the incredibly charismatic Fi, DragSTER are nothing less than a great band.  I don’t often make recommendations, but I would ask you to do two things: firstly go out and buy DragSTER’s new album ‘Here Come The Meat Robots’ and secondly, purchase a ticket to see them if they play within a twenty mile radius of where you live.  Take my word on this because as you know, I am never wrong.    

Like the greatest punk bands Choking Susan knows how to reverse the polarity of music so that the resulting negative energy can be used in a positive way.  This is orchestrated in no small part by the incurably unhip, though all the better for it, Colleen Caffeine.  She’s fronts the group in every sense of the word and from the moment she places her shoes onto the Witchwood stage, she never allows any eye to avert it’s gaze from her electric performance. 

Choking Susan come from Detroit, and I guess they have a heritage to live up to, but the reality is it’s not where you’re from that earns respect, it’s where you’re at and the performance Choking Susan give tonight shows a band at the top of their game. Armed and ready to rage with tracks from their forthcoming CD ‘Welcome To Cuntopia’, Colleen and the boys do not fanny about and get straight down to it.  This proudly bloody-minded band plays punk rock like it should be played, pure; simple and potent. And it’s done with such verve that one’s left with little choice other than to fall head over heels in love them and her.

Just when you think the day can’t get any better, self-declared Canadian outcasts Maximum RNR break out the hard stuff and offer it round for everyone to take a hit.  What the fuck do they feed Canadians on? This band ploughs every ounce of what physical energy they possess into their music until it nearly buckles under the sheer irresistible force of their sound. It’s easy to be drawn to groups that have no interest in assuaging the audience and play music from the heart, not music for the charts.  It occurs to me that I am having the best time of my life listening to these bands and as I listen to Maximum RNR I do something I’m ashamed to say I haven’t done in  a long time; I start to dance. I’m buffeted about in the raging currents of this band’s music, and do you know what? It’s fabulous!

Finally it’s left to Aussie Oisters, Rust to bring this enjoyable day to a close. Rust play with guts and balls for people like me who have, rather unprofessionally, drunk too many pints of Joey Holts bitter.  Rust’s set is a blur and their songs go by, bang, bang, bang until they bring this great day to it’s finale. Or it would have been the finale if Shay and I hadn’t continued drinking and talking with Maximum RNR well into the early hours of Monday morning. 

While it’s still clear that punk will always welcome the angry and the rebellious and the un franchised, it’ll always be welcome those who also need it.  Whatever you may say about it, punk is still vibrant and it is still necessary. Listen, I’ll hold my hands up, I came a cynic and I left a fan.  This doesn’t happen very often.   

STP Records
Maximum RNR
Choking Susan
Mardigras Bombers
One Man Stand
Wasted Life

Review by Phil King
Photos by Shay Rowan 

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