If you have the chance to see Jawbox on this tour, don’t be stupid. Go see them!
It all started, like very few things in punk rock, with Jimmy Fallon. 12 years after the band’s demise, D.C.’s Jawbox reformed in honor of their seminal For Your Own Special Sweetheart’s reissue – and at the “Late Night” host’s behest. They stuck around just long enough to play “Savory,” its B-side “68” and “FF=66” (the latter two only put out online) before a studio audience in 2009. Singer-guitarist J Robbins was quick to dash any pesky hopes of a real reunion: “If we were going to do shows, we would not want it to be half-assed,” he said on an interview shortly after. “There were good and bad things about Jawbox, but we always held ourselves to a pretty high standard as far as playing shows. We would want to make sure we did it right, and we felt like we couldn’t take the time to do that.” There went any reunion hopes.
Time changes us all, though, and the Fallon performance sowed the seeds of this year’s reunion tour – but, then, so did getting older: “If we’re gonna do it, we should do it when we’re still physically capable of doing it justice, of the endurance and physical commitment that it takes to play the kind of music we played in Jawbox,” Robbins said in an interview this year. Whether they had the chops or not was a concern going in – and it didn’t help that opening Seattle sludge metal three-piece Helms Alee were the best opening act I’ve seen all year. They’ve been around long enough that I’ve kicked myself a couple times for having missed opportunities to see them, and I may never stop kicking myself now that I know how much impact they have when they play. They’re punishingly loud, rendering any conversation to comedic pantomime, but they’re the right kind of loud, where you can still hear the nuances in their work, instead of it turning to goo. Watching their set made me hungry for more; between sets, “Enjoy Your Life” co-host Eric Mellor, his wife Jada and I joked that Jawbox had given themselves an immensely hard act to follow.
That Jawbox were able to able to exceed all expectations and blow a band as good as Helms Alee out of the water after a 20 year break is a sonic miracle. I’m going to say this right now: if you have the chance to see Jawbox on this tour, don’t be stupid. Go see them. This band aged like wine, each member tightly locked together enough that they form a sonic Voltron – Robbins and guitarist Bill Barbot’s interplay is impressive to watch played out across the stage. Between the two stood bassist Kim Coletta at center stage, alternating between standing stoically and staring into the middle distance, to beaming wide while doing little dances. She blocked my ability to spend too much time watching drummer Zach Barocas, which is a shame – he appeared to have a score to settle with his drum kit that could only be put to rest by pummeling it as hard as humanly possible. And lest we forget, Robbins has made a second life out of his preternatural ability to make bands sound great, so every member sounded pristine. It’s one of the best sounding heavy shows I’ve ever seen.
Those fears I had about the band not being able to hack it were entirely unfounded – despite the aging process, these people sound as good as they did on record, a beautiful feat. “We waited 20 years for this!” someone in the audience yelled at one point, causing Robbins and Coletta each to visibly beam. The crowd was electrified for their staggering 24-song set, which somehow managed to maintain a high level of intensity and energy for the whole thing. They barreled through nearly all of Sweetheart and the bulk of their self-titled album – which did, mercifully, include an encore presentation of their “Cornflake Girl” cover. In between songs they were chatty and outspokenly thankful for those who stuck around and waited so long to see the band again, but marveling at how it hasn’t really felt like that long “Time is relative – I learned that watching Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse,” said Robbins early on.
You never know what you’re going to get from shows like this, which is a risk in seeing bands come back way after their prime. Jawbox are part of the growing trend of bands bucking the old trend of cash-grab reunions, and combined with the power of Helms Alee, they engineered one of the best nights of live music I’ve had this year. Time will tell if this short jaunt is the start of something more or the fulfillment of a triumphant final ride. But in case J Robbins or Kim Coletta are reading this: I’m not above blackmailing Jimmy Fallon into begging you to stick around longer.