I kicked off the AJJ show at Asheville, NC’s notorious Grey Eagle on February 7th by inadvertently insulting the opening act, Emperor X. My sidekick and I got there a little later than I’d hoped, and the venue was already packed just before showtime — more populated than I’d ever seen it, in fact, even for acts like Mudhoney and the Legendary Shack Shakers. We lurked in the gap near the soundbooth assessing the situation, and my sidekick, knowing my love of being right up front for my favorite bands, asked if I was ready to head up. What I meant to say was, “Not yet, let me get situated, I’m not ready to fight the crowd.” What actually came out of my mouth was, “Nah, I don’t want to be upfront for this band.” A few seconds later, the sidekick pointed out that the unassuming guy on the other side of him actually was that band, and had almost certainly overheard me. I’m still not sure how I managed to stay upright after sticking my foot so far into my own mouth.
Not a great start to what would ultimately be a night of spectacular music, and a couple songs in, I was regretting my decision to lurk at the back during Emperor X’s set and kicking myself again for not having had this guy on my radar in the first place. You know when you make a playlist when you’re having one of those days where you don’t really know how you feel but you know it’s a mess, and you end up with a little grunge and a little folk and some punk and some weird electronic techno shit and maybe a touch of something slightly industrial? Emperor X takes that feeling and that sound and combines into something beautifully bizarre, in every song. Through it all, he’s open about the fact that his voice was ready to give out and hoping to get through one more song, which only added to the authenticity of the experience and the feeling that this guy is doing what he loves, for the ones he loves. The next time he’s in town, or in one driveably adjacent, I’ll be upfront for sure.
Tacocat followed Emperor X, and this 80s kid was instantly won over by the fact that they present like the Bangles on psychedelics with a touch of the B-52s. Their music was a powerful mix of pop and punk, although I’d be loath to refer to it as “pop punk;” this aligned more with the feel of the Meat Puppets than with say, Sum 41. Under the vibrant exterior and energetic performance were a vicious sense of humor and a dark and serious edge. The crowd seemed more than familiar with Tacocat, and there was a definite sense of community as their fans sang along to the entire set. As an uninitiated listener, I could see why this was a band that brought people together, and like Emperor X, they bring a sense of reality to an increasingly plastic music scene.
In comparison to the almost blinding color and energy of Tacocat, AJJ presented a rather subdued front when they took the stage. These look like a bunch of regular dudes that you’d expect to see drinking beer and talking about the weather during a backyard barbecue on a rare long weekend. Any fan of AJJ — formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad, until they changed it in 2016, citing a desire to be respectful to the Muslim community and to distance themselves from Andrew Jackson — knows better, though, and any illusion of ordinary dude-ness was stripped away once they started playing.
AJJ is a band driven by lyrics that are by turns searingly stark and honest and blissfully ridiculous. The lines between can be blurred, and there’s a melodic brutality that runs through all of it. They’re one of those bands you listen to for the first time, bopping your head, digging the upright bass, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Wait — what did he say?” The juxtaposition between their usually upbeat sound and lyrics that delve deep into topics like mental health, child abuse, and ugly politics translates well onto the stage, and the show felt like a chance for folks to come together in acknowledgment that yeah, things really suck out there, but we can sing about it and for a few hours anyway, everything’s alright.
The band performed 9 out of 11 songs from their most recent release, Good Luck Everybody, including the political anthem “Mega Guillotine 2020” and the opening track to the album, “A Poem,” which gives a glimpse into the bands earlier, punkier roots. Bassist Ben Gallaty took over the lead vocal mic from Sean Bonnette to sing the classic “Coffin Dancer,” a psychedelia-tinged crooner that never gets old, and I was thrilled to hear one of my all-time favorites, “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns.” We’ll set it off like Microsoft in ‘94, Bonnette sings cheerfully, reminiscing with the rest of us about a time that was ostensibly simpler and more innocent than this adult reality we’re stuck in now.
Their performance of “Kokopelli Face Tattoo” might sum up better than anything else what AJJ is all about. Shouting into the mic, somehow infusing the acoustic guitar with ferocious punk energy, the refrain Hey dude, I hate everything you do, but I’m trying real hard to not hate you, ‘cause hating you won’t make you suck any less echoing through the crowd and back again, Sean Bonnette and AJJ relay a determined outlook in the face of utter bullshit. It’s not self-help garbage or navel-gazing new-age manufactured positivity, but a simple appreciation that acknowledging the bad is essential to embracing the good, and that sometimes the best way through is with your head up, facing the stage, feeling the amps breathe through you, and singing the fuck out of that shit — because tomorrow, we all might be dead.
AJJ are on tour in the US through June 6, and heading to the UK in July 2020. Their latest album, Good Luck Everybody, was released January 17, 2020, on AJJ limited LTD