If a live performance is measured in collective caloric burn, then a Jeff Rosenstock show should be considered one of this country’s most effective and lasting workouts.
A widely respected hero among DIY mavens for his work as the leader of the ska band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and the punk outfit Bomb The Music Industry!, Rosenstock is an explosive, fetching multi-instrumentalist with astonishing talents and a bristling, assiduous spirit that erupts from his recorded work and, as he showed at last week in the nation’s capital at Black Cat, fuels his live performances too.
Jeff brought his inconceivably entertaining, unrelentingly thrashing act to the Cat on Dec. 1, where and when his band would perform a monstrous, 29-song set that would have left even the most fit, seasoned concert-goer sore, drained — and craving more.
The first Rosenstock tour in nearly three years, and his first opportunity to earnestly promote albums and songs released in that time, this endeavor — titled NO DREAM Tour after his 2020 album — saw Jeff and his crew hit the road in November to make their way from Chicago through the Great Lakes and into Canada before heading down the coast and sling-shotting out west.
Stream Jeff Rosenstock’s 2020 acclaimed album NO DREAM via Spotify:
The long route brought them to DC last Wednesday for a sold-out show that produced a line stretched down the street before doors opened and no doubt provided fulfillment and memories for those brave and bold enough to embrace the night at its fullest.
Stepping to the stage in a cut-off T-shirt and jean shorts, Jeff would show himself to be an absolute battle axe of a musician and an enlightened deputy of a band leader — a 25-year-veteran, the consummate professional and unflappable as a performer and orchestrator in the face of unimaginable distractions (including photographers) while still staying keenly aware of the insanity compounding before him.
And compound it did.
With the initial chords of “Ohio Tpke,” the closing track to NO DREAM, fists extended into the air and the room shrunk in an instant, the audience transforming into a mass of commotion that would only intensify as the night moved along.
Watch the official music video for Jeff Rosenstock’s 2020 track “Scram!” via YouTube:
“Hey!” he got the crowd’s attention after the first song, already thinking ahead, like a construction supervisor managing a sprawling crew on a risky job. “I know everyone wants to have fun, and that’s great — I hate that I even have to say this — but … if there’s anyone who’s not keeping their hands to themselves, let’s ask them to leave. …. I think the security staff and I are on the same page on that.”
Making eye contact with venue personnel, his pupils wide and glaring, Rosenstock has seen a lot from the stage, and he was clearly managing so much more than the intricate, breakneck course of each of his songs.
“You doing ok?” Jeff asked a woman in the front row who wasn’t much larger than one of his guitars but was holding off the weight from the crowd with her back. She was fine, apparently loving it, and flashed a nod and thumbs up to Jeff, who confirmed with the same, and away he went.
In light of the terrible events down in Houston just a few weeks ago, Jeff’s approach was refreshing, encouraging, and shined lined on a man who thrives juggling various projects and is hyperaware of himself, this country and its people — all fuel for the introspective dread decoded on NO DREAM, an album that blasts from start to finish and, as some reviews pointed out, essentially teases genres on its way to creating a strenuous adventure of a recording that will prove to be durable over time.
The album — the first Jeff’s written since he signed Polyvinyl Records and his first since moving to Los Angeles — would comprise a portion of the set selection as all but two songs from the release were played. Dropped with almost no forewarning or promotion, its one that portrays Rosenstock analyzing the direction of his own life and witnessing all around him the collapse of whatever normalcy might have existed, particularly during the fall 2016 to fall 2020 stretch.
“What a few years, huh?” he said with disbelief, sharing his memories of attending a demonstration in DC back in 2016.
Paying tribute to a musical style that formed so much of his early influences, Rosenstock — also unannounced — recreated NO DREAM by recording a ska-version of just about every song on it. The final product was released back in May as an album titled SKA DREAM and, as his fans and reviews indicate, the project was more than successful — it might have reinvigorated an appreciation for ska and ska punk among kids who needed it.
Stream Jeff Rosenstock’s 2021 surprise album, SKA DREAM, a ska-edition of his album from 2020, NO DREAM, via Spotify:
But as someone who clearly loves a wide range of different music and sounds — interviews portray a man brimming with knowledge and passion — Jeff has never forgotten about ska and through his work he celebrates its legacy. In fact, even the more blatant punk fabric of NO DREAM, like much of his work, was still influenced by ska.
Showing incredible dynamism right out of the gate at Black Cat, the band swung to a vastly different vibe with “SKA DREAM” for the second song of the night, a revisional take on “NO TIME” that races and uses a behind-the-beat chop to set up a climax that in live form, from just a couple feet away, was tangled, extreme and wildly stimulating.
Punk or ska, this band will make it pound. And assembling a fantastic, fat slice of his music, Jeff pulled an assortment of tracks from his other self-titled releases, including We Cool? (2015), Worry (2018) and Thanks, Sorry (2019). Rosenstock teamed up with longtime friend, fellow New York native and former bandmate Laura Stevenson to write or record a number of tracks in the past couple years, and some of those appeared on another of his 2021 releases, a collection unflatteringly named 2020 Dump.
Obviously, Jeff kept busy during the pandemic.
At Black Cat, he was backed by his trusted posse, a downright nasty squad of razor-sharp but fun-loving musicians: to his left, guitarist Mike Huguenor; to his right, bassist John DeDomencini; behind him, drummer Kevin Higuchi; and way off in the back, Dan Potthast, who handled the acoustic guitar, keyboards, and more. Pretty much everyone gets involved in the vocals, and Jeff — who can play an exhaustive list of instruments, including brass — kept a small keyboard to his right, able to play it with one hand while still pulling sounds from one of several Fenders with the other.
They’d stare at each other with insanity, only until the melody shifted or they just cracked up. During jams, Jeff would make his way toward Mike, or mosey toward John, or just jump right onto the drumkit platform, his mouth wide open, screaming, as he yanked heavy-duty, hectic chords within the instrumentational whirlwind that inevitably resulted in most songs, much to the pleasure of the audience.
“Scram!”, a standout from NO DREAM, epitomized the duality in Rosenstock’s compositions. Brutally honest, embittered words gain steam, becoming emboldened to fight back against the nonsense he sees suppressing individualism and creativity:
“I’ve been told for most my life ‘Wait until the perfect time’
By people who have been defined by skipping spots in line
Don’t you want to go away?
Don’t you want to go away?
Don’t you want to go away?
Don’t you want to scram?
I’ve been told for most my life ‘Try to see the other side’
By people who have never tried to see the other side.”
Watch Jeff Rosenstock’s April 2021 live performance at Paste Studios via YouTube:
Maybe his most popular track based on Spotify streaming numbers — more than 9 million listens for this one — “Nausea” from We Cool? could be considered a classic at just six years old. An achievement in humorous, self-actualizing songwriting, it rang as commemoratory and oddly inspirative:
“I got so tired of discussing my future
I’ve started avoiding the people I love
Evenings of silence and mornings of nausea
Shake and sweat and I can’t throw up.
I got so tired of discussing my future
That I walk through my life like I’m the only one
With evenings of silence and mornings of nausea
Shake and sweat and I can’t throw up.”
Bulky, sudden takes on other favorites from NO DREAM, like “***BBN,” “Leave It In The Sun” and “The Beauty of Breathing” let the gratifying bite of synchronized, tense electric guitar, bass and drums take over the room for a stretch. The band kicked, swung, jumped, hollered — and the audience followed suit.
As thrilling and edgy as these songs are, Jeff’s charm beams from the lyrics — he’s highly critical of his fellow human, but with a heart as big as his sound, he’s probably even harsher on himself. Through all the chaos he creates, Rosenstock ultimately gives his music a relatability:
“Sometimes I wanna take the car out on the road
Flip it into park and smash myself into a million little pieces
I’m tired of knowing what about myself is wrong
But never mustering up the resolve to really try to change it …
Maybe someday I’ll want to breathe and
Maybe the people that I meet
Won’t lead to a certain future where I’m betrayed and
I’m so jaded
I’m so jaded
And that’s… that’s why I’m so fucking sad.”
The band took only a few seconds in between some songs, and Rosenstock’s fans relished in it all set. About midway through, a crowd-surfer was carried right onto the stage in one of the sillier, awkward moments of the night. A wide-eyed look at Jeff, a half turn to the left, then the right, and it was right back into the mob, headfirst.
“This has been a really fun show,” Jeff said. “I’m not gonna lie, yesterday was a pretty fucked up show. Today seems pretty nice. I hope it’s not three years before I see you again.”
A downtrodden “DONE DONE DONE,” an aerobic, psychedelic, chugging take on “Festival Song” and a mind-bending, exhausting version of “NODREAM” powered the band into the back half of the night.
But the group’s only break came at the end of the set, capped with “You, In Weird Cities,” a complex track that pulses and bangs before essentially mutating into a startling, haunting punk-love creation shouting unforgettable, echoing admissions:
“But when I listen to your records it’s like I’m hanging out with you (you)
When I listen to your records it’s like I’m hanging out with you
When I listen to your tunes it’s like I’m there with you
I wanna hang out with you.”
Jeff, who’s added to his impressive resume as the composer of the Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek, is considered by some to be the father of donation-based music labels. In 2006, he launched Quote Unquote Records, an online independent record label funded by donations, currently going strong with an outstanding roster of talent.
Keeping all of this and more of his accomplishments in mind at the Black Cat, it became more evident that Rosenstock is the definition of an entrepreneur — one of the hardest-working musicians one could meet, true to the sounds that influenced him on his path, obsessed with self-sufficiency and opportunistic for himself while actively hunting chances for others too.
Last Wednesday, he didn’t just make sure his bandmates received equal or more attention, but also the crew working to the side of the stage and at the soundboard. He asked the crowd to scream with him in thanking “Christine, Rick and Amanda.”
“We are all one organism, one octopus,” he added.
Almost trying to wear himself out, Jeff and company returned to the stage for an encore that would feature four songs, including the popular, uproarious “We Begged 2 Explode” and a blitzing rendition of “NO TIME” from NO DREAM.
Watch the official audio for Jeff Rosenstock’s “NO U,” a track released in the days following the Black Cat show, on YouTube:
When Jeff flopped the mic to the floor and the band had scurried off the stage, those who didn’t file into the already-formed merch line gathered around the water station at the end of the bar, where an employee stood for about 10 minutes pouring cups of water for the throng gone parched.
Later on, the woman in the front row whom Jeff had checked on posted a series of Instagram photos, including one of herself lying on the floor of a WMATA station in DC.
The caption? “Thank you @jeffrosenstock for being absolutely incredible.”
Jeff Rosenstock Setlist
NO TIME TO SKANK
Wave Goodnight To Me
Leave It In The Sun
The Beauty of Breathing
9/10 (stopped due to broken snare)
9/10 (new snare)
DONE DONE DONE
Monday At The Beach
Beating My Head Against The Wall
…While You’re Alive
Perfect Sound Whatever
You, In Weird Cities
We Begged 2 Explode (encore)
NO TIME (encore)
Slaughter Beach, Dog Setlist
Are You There?
A Modern Lay
Here are images of Jeff Rosenstock, along with touring partner Philly-based Slaughter Beach, Dog, and the night’s opening act, Oceanator, performing at Black Cat on Dec. 1, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Slaughter Beach, Dog