AJJ/Kimya Dawson/Laura Stevenson Review

Author: Shaun Soman

On Saturday, October 6th, the Senate confirmed an (alleged) rapist to the Supreme Court. Later that evening, my fifteen-year-old sister and I saw Mal Blum sing about “sad, gay shit” as they opened for Welcome to Night Vale’s ”A Spy in the Desert” live show at the Capitol Theater. Although Blum’s music – and the podcast’s radical overtones – were encouraging, the crowd was visibly deflated, its responses flattened by a tangible malaise. This night called for introspection and recovery. Indeed, it felt as if we could use the entire weekend to collect ourselves before facing the upcoming “holiday” that Monday.

Yeah, that Monday. It seems horrendously fitting that Kavanaugh’s confirmation happened near an institutionalized day of celebration of someone in The Bad Place; he and Columbus are not unrelated in history, but rather are intimately connected by an ongoing legacy of white, settler-colonial patriarchy. While one still perceived a lingering haze Monday night, AJJ and Kimya Dawson managed to invigorate the audience gathered at The Sett as we grappled with our difficult histories through music.

Laura Stevenson photo courtesy of Shaun Soman

The show opened with New York-based punks Shellshag and former Bomb the Music Industry! collective member Laura Stevenson (above). Now, few things are more punk than expressing love for your friends, and the appreciation radiating from each of these artists instilled a sense of gratefulness within the crowd. Featuring a face-to-face set-up consisting of stacked amplifiers and dual microphones that a fan once dubbed “The Tower of Fuck Yeah,” Shellshag – who debuted in 1997 – electrified the audience as Shell placed a wailing guitar atop a pile of Shag’s drums to conclude their set. Stevenson followed this whimsical duo with a brief solo set of sad, downtempo tunes before joking that she and her band members were going to play a set of sad, upbeat songs.

Although these musicians established a caring, respectful tone for the evening, one presumably intoxicated attendee temporarily disrupted that peace early on during Kimya Dawson’s performance. In the middle of a song from Alphabutt, the anti-folk performer’s children’s music album, a shirtless person sauntered from the crowd onto the stage and began dancing near Dawson (below) before staff removed them. Fortunately, that incident passed as Dawson joked about the conduct (again, during a children’s song), but the abuse of trust between artist and observer was decidedly un-punk. Afterward, Dawson noted to the crowd’s delight that “I Like Bears,” which also appears on Alphabutt, is about gay men and held its rapt attention during “At the Seams,” a song about the Black Lives Matter movement. Elsewhere, Dawson acknowledged Indigenous Peoples’ Day, sang unaccompanied by guitar, and recalled that she really loves Madison during the line in “Tire Swing” about getting lost on a road trip. Dawson’s was a tender, necessary performance we might honor by establishing a kinder future.

If Dawson gently embraced the night’s audience, then Phoenix-based folk-punk icons AJJ gave it a crisp high-five. Returning to Madison after last September’s performance at High Noon Saloon during their stripped-down 10th-anniversary tour for People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World, Sean Bonnette (below, left) and Ben Gallaty (below, right) brought along a full touring band for a set that predominantly highlighted work from 2016’s The Bible 2 and 2011’s Knife Man. Perhaps due in part to last year’s show, which saw one individual experience an asthma attack while being pushed by an overly eager crowd, Gallaty – doing a substitute teacher bit – issued a no-moshing clause prior to setting the group’s subsequent vibes by easing into “Space & Time.”

AJJ photo courtesy of Shaun Soman

Whereas their first set at High Noon last September was met with intense energy, Monday’s show was relatively mellow, but still all-encompassing; rather than shouting every lyric to 2007’s “breakthrough” LP, observers were enthralled by the quasi-religious experience of “Small Red Boy” and “Junkie Church.” Of course, AJJ carefully interspersed tracks like “Cody’s Theme” and “White Worms” to avoid any emotional lulls, but even their more pointed works proved somber. While not always overtly political, AJJ has never shied away from addressing social ills; their newest single, “Night of the Long Knives,” may have been an impromptu addition to the setlist, and the still-relevant “American Tune” saw Bonnette address sexual harassment in punk spaces and police violence. (“Fuck White People” might have been appropriate, too.) In each case, the band opted to facilitate an atmosphere more conducive to self-reflection than letting off steam. Later, they crested during the ballad-esque “Linda Ronstadt” and climactic “Big Bird,” which featured several acrobatic moves from Bonnette, who perfectly timed an unexpected – and thrilling – somersault with the second verse. After quickly returning for a short encore, Bonnette faked out the audience with “Personal Space Invader” before the group launched into “Brave as a Noun,” marking the show’s rowdiest ninety seconds.

Overall, Monday’s concert at The Sett was radical in every sense of the word. Free shows that are both accessible and all-ages are events to cherish, and being able to simply take in joyful, tender, and encouraging music (without feeling as though one might step into a puddle of beer or trampled by aggressive punks) likely helped those who may have felt beaten down by the weekend’s unfortunate news. Moving forward is inevitable, but not always easy; after Monday, it at least feels manageable.

AJJ’s complete setlist was as follows:

Main Set:

1. “Space & Time” (Ugly Spiral: Lost Works 2012-2016, 2018)

2. “Cody’s Theme” (The Bible 2, 2016)

3. “American Tune” (Knife Man, 2011)

4. “Love in the Time of Human Papillomavirus” (Can’t Maintain, 2009)

5. “Junkie Church” (The Bible 2)

6. “Coffin Dance” (Christmas Island, 2014)

7. “Small Red Boy” (The Bible 2)

8. “Night of the Long Knives” (2018)*

9. “People II 2: Still Peoplin’” (Knife Man)

10. “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” (The Bible 2)

11. “Fucc the Devil” (Knife Man)

12. “Psychic Warfare” (2018)

13. “Hate Song for Brains” (Rompilation, 2012)

14. “White Worms” (The Bible 2)

15. “Linda Ronstadt” (Christmas Island)

16. “Big Bird” (Knife Man)

*Was not included on the physical setlist; placement is approximate.

Encore:

1. “Brave as a Noun” (People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People in the World, 2007)