Photos by Roberto Gasparro.
A sea of Milo and Black Flag t-shirts have converged on the exit to the Northern Line at Kentish Town, so it must be time for Descendents. A pilgrimage for many punk rockers, this is their first London date since their last gig at The Forum in 2017.
I’m insistent that we make it in time for all the support acts and, on seeing Last Hounds, I’m so glad I did. They’re ferociously energetic and heavy as hell; I can feel the floor shaking under my feet with the force of the bass. The comparisons to Gallows are obvious, but they’ve got bigger choruses and vocal clarity, ala Comeback Kid, which lends a singalong quality to their otherwise violent hardcore. Balaclava is the stand-out track.
They look very much at home on the bigger stage, although the singer spends a lot of time off-stage, charging around in the crowd as far as his mic lead will take him. The aggression of the band’s delivery gives a nod to mid-noughties hardcore and inspires a pre-8pm wall of death. Honestly, Last Hounds look like they’d be more at home playing Download Fest this weekend (the reason Descendents are in the country) rather than this packed-out Academy gig.
Wonk Unit takes to the stage early, doing exactly what Wonk Unit do best. They bring the Landan attitude to tonight’s North London gig. They open by telling us ‘heroin is really cool’ and I hope the audience gets the ironic delivery. I’ve seen Wonk’s spoken-word interludes like the introduction to Nan countless times, but it feels increasingly poignant in a venue as cavernous as The Forum – a couple of thousand people assembled rather than a ragtag bunch of punks at a DIY show – there’s something about the context that makes it feel more rare and amusing.
Strength is a newer tune that adds some depth to their repertoire, however, the highlight of the set is Raise My Glass. Vez moves from behind the keyboard to centre stage to sing the lead, introducing herself with a simple, “Hey everyone, I’m Vez,” with the happy charm of your favourite Sesame Street character, earning a huge, genuine cheer from the crowd. Throughout the set, I’m reminded of how many bangers Wonk Unit has in their back catalogue: Awful Jeans and Disco Fever (possibly the least ‘disco’ song I’ve ever heard) are borderline anthemic and there’s actual violence in the pit for Go Easy.
Before they even start playing, Milo Auckerman earns a huge groan of laughter from the crowd with a, “So, is this town kind of like Kent?” joke. He asks who was here last time, and there’s a roar in response.
As soon as the band start playing, there’s a constant stream of crowd surfers doing laps over the waves of dancing hands, catapulting over the barrier and running straight back into the fray. The response from the audience is so powerful that you can hear almost every lyric sung by the assembly of punks louder than you can Milo’s vocal, pumped through the massive PA. Descendents roll out a tried and tested back catalogue of hits, opening with Everything Sux into Hope and Coolidge to kick it all off. There’s a swell of adoration in the room for Without Love which demonstrates just how well Descendents’ new material holds up against the old classics. Thank You is a stunning highlight of the set alongside Suburban Home with its Pavlovian introduction, “I want to be stereotyped, I want to be classified.”
Descendents’ songs are still catchy, punchy and full of those geeks-in-love lyrics that many of us have heard a little of ourselves in, but When I Get Old hits a little different nowadays. I find myself questioning whether the band are playing slower or whether my taste leans more towards breakneck hardcore than it did a decade or so ago. They play in such a technically adept, perfectly-rehearsed manner that it hardly matters if it’s a notch downtempo. It’s also hard to criticise a band that has influenced so many to the extent Descendents have, however, ultimately this is a somewhat soulless Academy-sized gig with a band playing stale old songs from the ‘80s. There’s only so good it can be.
Almost as soon as this thought strikes me, they kick into Coffee Mug, the liveliest 30 seconds of the whole evening, giving me the jolt I was in need of. Descendents may be a little slower and a little greyer than I remember, but they’ve still got the youthful spark that made us each fall in love with them. Bill Stevenson’s constant little cymbal rolls are finger-waggingly joyful; Karl Alvarez’s fiddly little basslines have inspired so many artists that have come after. Even Milo Auckerman’s little water-bottle shoulder holster gives us a friendly giggle – we all wish we had one right now.
The floor vibrates as people cheer for an encore. Descendents return to the stage in the company of two of The Linda Lindas, who’ve brought their own scribbled version of the All-O-Gistics with them. This looks like the most fun the band have had all set, as the room unites in shouting, “Thou shalt not partake of decaf!” It’s the closest to a religious doctrine that many of us can get on board with.
As the band have a pow-wow in front of the drumkit, deciding what to play next, this feels like the least-rehearsed part of the set and we catch a glimpse of the genuine Descendents from time past. Myage and Nothing With You are the liveliest, most frenzied tunes of the whole set, with the crowds’ hollered words reverberating around the ornate old theatre. Closing with their signature medley of Break On Through and Catalina, by the time Descendents leave the stage I’m grinning from ear to ear … and ready to go to bed, because I’m older now too.
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