On the final night of the festival we did gather by the many thousands, on a browning glade ringed by porta-potties, funnel-cake kiosks, and a half-filled Ferris wheel. In the hard darkness that descended from the September gloaming we came to face the last lit stage—twinkle daddies, torch carriers for the pop-punk of yore, and hither and yon the bearers of fading Morton Salt girl and Chesterfield King tattoos. (I suppose a few of us had simply been driven to madness by the wheedlingly saccharine sounds of Paramore or beaten half to a pulp by the food-court rock/rap of supergroup Prophets of Rage.) We had come for Jawbreaker’s first performance in 22 years (apart from two small California warmup gigs this summer), and thus to see the past unveiled.
If that sounds too highfalutin to you, I cede the point, but this was awfully hard to see as just another rock show. Jawbreaker’s silence of decades has magnified their talent for writing songs that, even when new, immediately misted themselves in delicious nostalgia. Their working years passed way too fast, like those of J.D. Salinger or the Smiths—which of course made their fans even hungrier for another divine utterance. Does this ramping up of expectations to an impossible level make anyone else generally allergic to reunions? Are you able to find joy only in a reunion performance that has yet be suffused with a florid, unnameable despair about what it somehow represents, even before it happens? Just me? OK then. Over the years I’ve written enough festival reviews and blurbs about how “The band’s gettin’ back together” to line a hefty set of drawers, and Riot Fest has long maintained an address on Reunion Avenue. With Jawbreaker, it managed to book one of the most alluring holdouts of all. It’s hard to be mad. But would the band really be into it?
At a packed Logan Theatre last Thursday, I took in the new documentary Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker. It covers the band’s history using a hilarious and incisive array of talking heads, a VHS tape’s worth of top-notch 90s concert footage, and a lot of #realtalk about the band’s controversial major-label signing in 1995 and the nasty breakup that shortly followed. Any fans of Jawbreaker will want to watch, even if it’s through their fingers. There’s a lot of dark history.
Much of the film’s frisson comes from scenes shot in 2007, where you can see how obviously displeased guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach is with the prospect of embracing the band’s past in the present tense. Even when the filmmakers set up Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler with a studio full of equipment (and extraordinary producer Billy Anderson at the board!), he’s defiantly reluctant to participate in any actual music making. These are among the most fascinatingly awkward scenes I’ve seen in a rock doc since Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster, though for an admittedly different set of reasons. The film includes a brief reunion announcement at the end, but it hardly makes Jawbreaker seem like a healthy band. It made me nervous for Sunday.
I’m glad to report that Jawbreaker didn’t feel reluctant at all at Riot Fest. They were surrounded by a sizable ring of fans who’d come up onstage with them, which somehow gave the proceedings a touch of the intimate feel of a basement show, and they thundered through 75 minutes or so of their trademark yearning anthems. And make no mistake, Jawbreaker traffic in serious anthems—the kind only a trio of great songwriters can write. Schwarzenbach is ferociously beloved because his lyrics, shouted through a cracked, two-pack-a-day larynx, give universal weight to the despair of dying love affair or the joy of a raging house party. Not many people can write a lyric about wanting to be a boat (as he does on “The Boat Dreams From the Hill”) and make it sound both poignant and punk as fuck. And at a Jawbreaker show, the crowd add their voices to the songs because they’re packed with great melodic ideas. I can attest to this after years of experience in bars and late-night apartments full of drunk punks: Jawbreaker belongs in the firmament of shout-along bands for all time. On Sunday, being in a crowd of untold thousands doing the same thing gave me chills more than once.
Obviously, there were pop-punk rhythm sections before Bauermeister and Pfahler (and there have been about two million since), but has there ever been a better one? Bauermeister’s busy, intuitive bass lines and Pfahler’s steady hands might be underappreciated now because they’ve been aped so many times. But when Schwarzenbach wrings molten tones from the throat of his Les Paul and their songs jell apparently effortlessly (I’m thinking of “Condition Oakland”), the alchemy is unmistakably Jawbreaker. From what I could see, most fans probably agreed with me that we’d gotten our money’s worth and our affections repaid at Riot Fest. The band’s broad set list tilted heavily toward 1995’s Dear You and 1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy but also reached further back for “Want” from 1990’s Unfun and two cuts from 1992’s Bivouac, including a scorching rendition of the title track to close the set. Not to nitpick, but I can’t help but be a bit disappointed that “Chesterfield King” wasn’t forthcoming.
The future might offer further opportunities for Jawbreaker, and they seem interested in taking them. At a Q&A after Thursday’s screening, the band all but announced that they were writing new material and planning future tours, so who can say? This fan hopes it’s a reunion that sticks. And thrives.