The paradoxical pairing of Black Eyes and Q and Not U

Last night I went to see Q and Not U play at the Black Cat in D.C. They are without a doubt my favorite D.C. band -- more on that later.

Also playing were Black Eyes, the band of the moment. The buzz band. The “next big thing” everyone’s talking about. A year ago I had lunch with an old scenester acquaintance of mine, arguably the most infamous music fan in Washington D.C., a guy I used to know from going to shows way back when I was in college. In those days only about 25 kids turned out (everyone else was seeing Belly or Alice in Chains or whatever alt-rock band was in town), and you pretty much knew everybody by sight if not by name. That was back when Dischord, Simple Machines and Teenbeat formed the holy triumvirate of D.C. labels.

In any event, I should have known the guy couldn’t be trusted when he recommended the Indian deli we were eating at. The food was terrible. But I was willing to give him the benefit of a doubt.

“You’ve gotta see Black Eyes,” he said. Pronouncing it to sound like “Black Guys.”

“’Black Guys’, huh? That’s pretty clever.”

“No, No -- Black EYES. You have to see them. They’re incredible. Like a young Fugazi or Rites of Spring.”

That’s what everyone says whenever a new “hot” band emerges -- that seeing them is like seeing a young Fugazi or Rites of Spring. It’s sort of irritating. I should know, because I often use that expression myself. I think it’s because we all long to have been there when Fugazi or Rites of Spring, arguably the two greatest bands this city ever produced, were starting out -- since we weren’t, we pretend that these new, mostly inferior bands are a resurrection.

“Why is it I’ve never heard of them?”

“Oh, they don’t like playing traditional club shows. They only play at churches and house parties -- the type of places where you have to be cool enough to know the password. I could tell you the next time they play.”

And of course, in typical hipster style, I never heard from him again. But I was intrigued -- I wanted to see this band. Over the course of a year, more people raved to me about how great they were. I should have never bought into the hype -- the last “incredible” band, El Guapo, turned out to be a bunch of guys who bang out lame jazz-influenced math rock and call it “improvisational.”

So when I saw that Black Eyes were opening for Q and Not U, I was excited to say the least. I had to hear them. I was so convinced of their greatness, that I even dropped $10 on their new Dischord CD before I even heard them. If the band is on Dischord, they have to be good, right?

When Black Eyes came on, there were close to 1,000 kids pressed up against front of the stage. You could feel the buzz of excitement, the energy in the crowd. The audible sigh when the band appeared -- two drummers, a bassist and two guitar players, spread out symmetrically like a “V” with the drummers forming the point.

“This is going to be good,” I said to myself.

And then one of the guitarists began reading a poem about the war. Problem number one: he read it in a high-pitched baby voice; problem number two: I wasn’t quite sure if he was mocking the war, mocking the protestors, or both. As I scratched my head in confusion, the band began playing. The drums were incredible -- the two intertwining drummers creating rhythms that would otherwise only be possible by drum machine or some kind of artificial assistance. The bass player expertly complemented the drums, but the guitars were just assorted screeches and scratches, not adding anything to the music. I kept waiting for them to kick in, but they never did.

“This could still be okay,” I thought.

And then the vocals started. The high-pitched baby voice turned into a loud squealing monkey voice. The words were completely inaudible, but I kept seeing an image in my head of a chimpanzee swinging on a vine, howling at gun-toting Sudanese poachers. It was utterly dreadful.

Yet the kids loved it. They pumped their fists in the air, sang along and cheered between songs. The crowd surged with perpetual excitement, and a small mosh pit -- virtually unheard of in usually reserved D.C. audiences -- formed at the front. Things improved when the second guitar player sang, but not by much.

Beyond the music, what really bothered me was the band’s attitude. There is a long tradition in D.C. of contempt for the audience that goes back to Nation of Ulysses, Slant 6, the Make*Up, Bratmobile, Cold Cold Hearts, Bikini Kill (when they were in town), etc. I’ve never been comfortable with that -- I’ve always hated it when bands act above the audience. As Pantaliamon puts it: “You’re either lame for thinking you’re cool enough to be at the show, or lame for liking the music at all.” But what troubled me terribly about Black Eyes was that they seemed to have contempt for their own music; they seemed embarrassed to be playing those songs, not because those songs are bad (which they are), but because they were too good to be playing music at all.

They acted as if they were doing us all a huge favor for being on stage, that it was a big sacrifice for them to be playing their instruments. Now, I’ve met one of their drummers, he’s a couple years younger than me and seems like a good guy. But the guitarists -- kids probably a good 10 years younger than I am, who were probably still singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” when I first saw Fugazi -- were so snarky and condescending, I remarked to a Pantaliamon that if I ever saw them on the street things might get violent.

Luckily, their contempt for the audience was so great that they stopped playing after only twenty minutes or so. Which must have been a record for the Black Cat, a place where time dilates and a bad opening band takes your entire childhood to get off the stage. Black Eyes must have some paranormal ability to shut off the Black Cat Time Dilation Effect, and I am grateful. I blinked and they were gone.

After they disappeared, Q and Not U came out. I immediately noticed that guitarist Chris Richards had scrawled “Call the White House” on the front of his guitar amp, along with the White House phone number. After a brief mishap where the sound man forgot to turn on the stage mics, ruining the first two songs, the sound was fixed and Q and Not U were incredible as always.

How to describe them? Imagine D.C. post-punk crossed with soul and electronic dance and you’ll get the gist. They make sounds with guitars that only a synthesizer should be able to make. And unlike the “experimentalism” of Black Eyes, Q and Not U’s music sounds natural. They’re pop songs at their core, but pop songs laced with socio-political ideas. You really can’t go wrong with that formula.

Some of Black Eyes’ fans were more interested in talking than listening to Q and Not U, so Pantaliamon and I eventually pushed closer to the stage where we couldn’t hear them anymore. Which I’m glad we did, because we were about to witness one of the most emotionally moving sets I’ve ever been to.

At the end of the song “A Line in the Sand,” the band segued into something that may or may not have been improvised -- an anthem denouncing Bush and the war. After months of being dissatisfied with the lameness of the protest movement, of the clichéd, dull and predictable hippies speaking out against the war, I finally heard someone who could voice the rage and anger and sadness that I feel. Although I was too busy dancing to commit the words to memory, I remember one line in particular: “Bush isn’t getting any monuments in my town.” And also an excellent chorus about how Bush “first stole the election, now he’s stealing the lives of Iraqis and American soldiers.”

It was cathartic for me in the way that Fugazi used to be. Where my feelings and ideas are articulated in song. I haven’t felt that way at a show in a very long time. Black Eyes made me want to give up on punk rock, but Q and Not U made me remember just why at 28 I still listen to it.

Q and Not U are on tour right now -- you should go see them if you get a chance. I’d say that they’re just like Fugazi in their prime, but as I said before, that would be unfair. They’re more like Q and Not U in their prime. They’re a band you’ll tell your kids about. I know I will.