Concert Review: Joel Reader’s Birthday at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco with the Avengers, Pansy Division, Dr. Frank and the Plus Ones

How do you review a music show? I don’t like to criticize musicians, especially such an amazing ticket as I saw for Joel Reader’s 40th birthday at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. The line-up was incredible, so much so that a friend of mine who has been going to music shows since the nineties decided to tag along. He would proudly tell anyone at the show that his first punk show was a Rancid show in LA. But it also attracted another friend of mine who earnestly proclaimed herself to be a newbie, this being her first show. What a helluva show to go to for the first time.

I was there to see Pansy Division. They tour so infrequently that I couldn’t ignore the opportunity to see them live. It had been a long time since my childhood was consumed by secretly listening to their records in the still of the night out of fear that my family would find me huddled in my room listening to songs like “Dick of Death” or “Rock & Roll Queer Bar”.

It was a treat because I got to experience the show not just through my own nostalgia but also through the eyes of the friends I’d brought with me: the “Newbie” and the Expert.

Each band brought something special. The Plus Ones burst forth with that perfectly crafted pop-punk that dominated radio in the late-nineties and early-aughts, sounding like kissing cousins to bands like Jimmy Eat World and Sum-41. Their hooks and unique brand of love songs kept nobody still. Dr. Frank (leader of the Mr. T Experience) performed a nice acoustic set consisting of songs accompanying his new book, King Dork Approximately, each song conveying through humor the universal high school experience. Pansy Division performed their essential Queercore standards, including the aforementioned “Dick of Death” and cuts off their previous album released last fall, Quite Contrary. And finally, the Avengers, famed for opening for The Sex Pistols at their final show at the Winterland Ballroom in the seventies, who came in and showed how professionals revive the punk experience that started this whole wave of music.

The show is a testament to Joel Reader’s thread through punk music. Reader was a member of every band that played (although Dr. Frank performed acoustically, Reader is a former member of The Mr. T Experience), and Pansy Division improvised a song just for him, espousing the merits of having a straight man in a band made for and by queers. This was his birthday, so this was his night. (They kept saying he was forty, although could have sworn he was twenty-seven when we ran into each other in the cramped men’s room before the show started).

It was such a diverse collection of bands. Usually when I go to shows, they stack the groups to be similarly linked by genre or sound. That was not the case with these groups. Although a case could be argued for linking the Avengers and Pansy Division, Pansy Division was ultimately part of a third wave of punk intended to alter the narrative threads that defined the Avengers for a queer audience who had always found themselves outcasts amongst the punk collective.

Each band performed flawlessly and critiquing their technique or musicality isn’t really what I do. They’re all professionals with decades of experience upon their shoulders and I wouldn’t be amiss encouraging each of you to check out their music.

What this is really about is the crowd. Such a diverse collection of bands brought together a wide range of fans. Everybody loved every band, although some definitely had their favorites, there was no jeering, not one ounce of hostility or passive-aggressive comments. I saw a late-sixties-aged man dive into the mosh pit during Pansy Division’s set, and instead of being chided for being too old, the pit was playful, yet respectful: they didn’t slow down the pit just because he was in there.

My friend the “Punk Expert” commented on the hookiness of The Plus Ones, ignored Dr. Frank, and jumped whole-heartedly into the pit for Pansy Division. He joyfully exclaimed that “One of My Best Friends”, a Reader-fronted track from Pansy Division’s That’s So Gay, must’ve been written about him. He respectfully jumped around to the Avengers as lead singer Penelope Houston weaved through the songs with effusive clarity. “The American in Me” is such a poignant indictment of patriotism that it seems as though it were written for the Trump era instead of the Carter/Reagan era.

“It’s the American in me that makes me watch the blood running out of the bullethole in his head.

It’s the American in me that makes me watch tv see on the news, listen what the man said.

He said, “ask not what you can do for your country what’s your country been doing to you

Ask not what you can do for your country what’s your country been doing to your mind?”

My friend the “Newbie” found different excitements. She enjoyed the pop-friendly accessibility of The Plus Ones, guffawed at the naughty lyrics of Pansy Division, but found herself truly mesmerized by Dr. Frank. His acoustic numbers, which sandwiched Pansy Division, were full of the types of humorous high school experiences that she remembered from her youth. She loved it so much that she bought his book, which Dr. Frank painfully explained (too late because the crowd was a few drinks into the night) contained the download code for the album. I had to explain this to the “Newbie” several times over the course of the rest of the weekend and immediately understood Dr. Frank’s frustration.

The most amazing moment for me, though, was buying a Pansy Division t-shirt. The petite blonde girl at the merch booth seemed mystified at my request for a large Pansy Division shirt. Immediately after I said it, she eyed my slight frame and looked around me as if I might be requesting it for a larger friend. She searched through the box but found nothing until Jon Ginoli, lead singer of Pansy Division, came over and handed me the t-shirt.

I won’t lie: I was completely starstruck. I’d read his book, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, just last year and I felt like I knew so much about this man who knew nothing about me. I was struck completely dumb. At this moment, the “Punk Expert” came up and introduced himself. What followed was an amazing 20 minute conversation between the three of us (I’ll admit, I mostly nodded and agreed effusively with these two). Ginoli expressed such humility and astonishment at playing with a band he so admired (the Avengers) while proudly admitting that now half of his band was made up of members of them (later the “Punk Expert” reflected that Ginoli was an encyclopedia of punk knowledge). The “Newbie” then found us and was equally enchanted by Ginoli’s kindness, humility and enthusiasm at being at the show.

We left feeling exuberant and full of love for each of these bands. The next day we all remarked that it was an exceptional show. The “Expert” opined that it was one of the finest punk shows he’s every experienced. The “Newbie” wondered if every punk show was as full of great music and enthusiasm. I left satisfied knowing that I’d had a defining experience in my life, akin to seeing Blondie live or twirling fourth row at a Stevie Nicks show.

If you see any of these bands on a ticket, which might be a stretch because most of them play rather fleetingly at this point, you must go! They ooze such musicality and history that it’s worth having to sit through someone you don’t want to see. The Avengers are punk history. Pansy Division are pioneers. Dr. Frank is frothy fun with a purpose. The Plus Ones (who reunited for the first time in ten years) are pop that never was popular enough.

If you see any of these names: GO and don’t ask questions.

Post by Justin Bowman

Have you seen any of these bands live? Comment below.

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