Few bands that were around in 1994, at least in Denver's punk milieu, are still around. But somehow King Rat has endured and reinvented or reinvigorated itself again and again, despite personal turmoil and the vicissitudes of public tastes in punk and music in general. And it was the reinvigorated King Rat that played this twentieth-anniversary show at 3 Kings Tavern on Friday night. This, in spite of frontman Luke Schmaltz's genuinely clever self-deprecating comments, including a joke about the ability of the band to endure playing a 36- to 40-song set. (The number was dependent upon how you counted the way the set came together.) Who plays a set that long other than the Boss, Leonard Cohen, George Clinton or a jam band?
Despite the fact that the band's songs are about drinking, heartbreak and making it through rough times, and that they are in that harder edged, melodic punk vein that isn't hardcore, metallic or pop punk, the songs aren't short on creative ways to tell those stories. The guys played it like they still absolutely enjoy playing the material, even dipping into a song or two that dated back to a time before King Rat's formal existence.
What was most notable, though, was the way the performance and the show felt like traveling back to a time in the '90s when knowledge of bands like King Rat weren't as widespread as it is now. And to get to see a band be startlingly good and new to you again because it is playing with the energy, confidence and conviction of youth. All jokes aside, King Rat opened that door into a memory of punk past without any bitter aftertaste of nostalgia, because it is still happening here and now. Also, the group's latest material, such as the title track of its new record, Buy the Ticket Take the Ride, perhaps a Hunter S. Thompson reference, isn't some toned-down, mellowed-out, essentially subpar version of the earlier music. It has the grit of going to the 15th St. Tavern in the '90s minus the profoundly beer-sticky floors and cloud of cigarette smoke. The crowd knew a lot of the music and sang along, and more than a couple of people made their attempt at something like a circle pit without being ridiculous about it.
Earlier in the night, another band that conjured the '90s era of punk was Wretch Like Me. Unlike King Rat, Wretch did break up in 2003. But it also felt like those guys didn't really take any time off. As with King Rat's music, there was an uncommon intelligence and poetry behind the words, but beyond that, Wretch Like Me played with some surprising power and energy for a group of guys that haven't played together for more than a decade. It was like that old connection had come back. Frontman Abe Brennan had the dramatic gestures down, and he put genuine passion behind his screamed vocals.
Throughout the set, Brennan caught air with some jumps but the moment finally came when he didn't just sing while lying on his back. Arching his back, he did one of those forward flips that seem impossible to do without causing major injury, but Brennan made it look easy. That made the whole show worth it, because a performance heroic move like that these days is rare in punk singers half Brennan's age.
Bias: King Rat was the seventh local band I saw, when it opened for the Red Aunts at the Bluebird in 1998, and I've been a bit of a fan since. Wretch Like Me I last saw in 2000, opening for All and the Roofies at the Bluebird. That band was the highlight of that night by far.
Random Detail: Ran into Joaquin Liebert of Reckless Nights. Apparently that band's album is finally coming out.
By the Way: There are some great punk bands now in Denver if you go to the right places. But there were some fantastic punk bands in Denver worth checking out in the '90s and going back to the '70s. Interestingly, that chain thinned out but it never fully broke, just like other strains in the Denver area underground music scene.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.