Protomartyr Shape Rock Elements Into Frantic/Epic Existential Crises at Dallas’ RBC (SHOW REVIEW)

Protomartyr’s February 27th show at Dallas’ fairly new, DIY-influenced club, RBC, proved to be quite the step back in time. Unobtrusively tucked away behind snazzier, trendier, and more well-attended Deep Ellum eateries, RBC greets its’ patrons with a series of shrugs; the perpetually stoned ID checker barely taking a glance at your license, the diminutive and bespectacled hipster nonchalantly taking your admission fee, and the agitated older woman who apparently runs the place, puffing on a cigarette and noisily commanding her charges are all here to welcome to you in. Curious as to what time the show starts? Locate the hastily scrawled set times displayed on a torn piece of cardboard and you’re all set. Want to grab a beer? Saddle up to the bar and order a bottle from the lonely twin refrigerators anchoring the back wall. And, if you need to use the restroom, be advised that their conditions will be dependent on how many people have entered before you.

This is all punk rock, though, right? It’s the way things used to be, but very rarely are anymore when you enter venues of various sizes. For all its’ shabbiness, RBC gets much about the rock n’ roll experience correct, right down to its’ sense of community (the star of the night, Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey gleefully smoked cigarettes on the patio and chatted with fans throughout the opening acts) and its’ intimacy (the stage is elevated just ever so slightly above the crowd while the capacity hovers around the 200-300 person mark). It all had the feel of a neighborhood setup amongst friends, a gathering of like-minded music fans who were able to reel in a brand-name band to spruce up the surroundings.

And that band proved to be worthy representatives. Protomartyr, a post-punk outfit hailing from Detroit, have been riding a wave of momentum that peaked towards the end of 2015, as their third album, The Agent Intellect earned solid review after solid review from critics both high and low. Easily capable of headlining one of the area’s larger and more prominent venues, Protomartyr took the stage as Saturday melted into Sunday and promptly spent the majority of the next hour illustrating why they’ve racked up so much positive attention in their short career.

Taking basic punk rock elements and then shaping them into frantic yet epic existential crises seem to the band’s specialty. It’s one they do well, too. Guitarist Greg Ahee can shred chords with maximum aplomb, but also shrewdly works in nuance and homage-the Western inflections that introduce “Cowards, Starve” and the nervy wirings that anchor “Pontiac ‘87” and “Rise, Scum!” were particularly potent examples. Like their precursors, Joy Division and Wire, bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard keep the rhythm section anchored as the driving undercurrent of each song. With his long blonde locks maniacally flowing, Davidson serves as the band’s energy center, proudly displaying his joy and passion for being onstage, never too cool for school or proud to show his emotions. In contrast, Leonard keeps his attention strictly on his kit, rarely looking up during songs, and instead choosing to stay locked firmly in the groove.

And, then there’s Casey. A decade older than his bandmates and displaying those extra years’ worth of life in his features, Casey’s unassuming nature is turned upside down once the music starts. Here, he’s no longer the weathered sales executive at the tail end of a business trip, or (as he once was) the beleaguered doorman working the club’s entrance where his bandmates are gracing the stage. Instead, he has morphed into an honest-to-God frontman, one who sharply leads the show and makes you pay attention to what he has to say. As his songs often dwell on people dealing sadness, despair, and the worst of impulses, Casey is not what you would call an upbeat character, but his demeanor can shift beyond the sad sack. Throughout the night, he glibly embodied the Devil (“I’ll corrupt them ‘til they think the way I do”), raged against corrupt hypocrites (“And I? Ride out?  I don’t think so. They lie, they lie, they lie”), and defiantly raged against the inevitable tide of mortality during the cathartic “Why Does It Shake” (“Sharp mind, eternal youth/I’ll be the first to never die/Nice thought and I’m never gonna lose it”). It’s powerful lyrical content and smart commentary on subjects many would prefer to ignore. Casey unapologetically goes there and does so with a commanding presence. As few of the songs pass the three-minute mark, he doesn’t dwell on the topics at hand, but plants the seeds in your head, nonetheless.

To make the night even more punk rock, Protomartyr played the show with predominantly borrowed instruments due to a van breakdown encountered along the journey to Dallas from the previous night’s stop in Austin. In the end, it was of little consequence. The band has developed a powerful, precise, and dynamic sound that should serve them well moving forward, whether they move completely up to the bigger sounding rooms or choose to keep things cozier and more confined.

ProtoMartyr Setlist RBC, Dallas, TX, USA 2016

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