Bands in the Land Exclusive: Firebarker and Cardboard Caskets
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
The Five O’Clock Lounge in Lakewood is one of the more underrated music venues in Ohio. Sandwiched somewhere between Mahall’s and the Happy Dog, and next to the legendary Phantasy (which is supposed to reopen in May of this year), this place is mostly overlooked by traveling national acts. However, this venue could easily become a hotspot for local musicians ready to build themselves a following in the Cleveland area. We came to the Five O’Clock Lounge to see Firebarker with Cardboard Caskets and as we walked in the door, it was clear that the bar was already hopping.
If you frequent places like The Stoop in Columbus, then you will definitely feel like a rock star in this place. I wore my hair in a mohawk for this occasion along with my new Bastard Suns shirt with black leggings, a flowing cardigan, and my favorite Vans and the crowd would part like the Red Sea every time I walked from room to room. This “dive” bar also features a lovely mid-century lounge and bar and a fairly large room for live performances with a ceiling strung with ethereal fairy lights while still offering plenty of cheap drinks and bathrooms just grungy enough to scare off the some of the local yuppies.
Before the show, I heard a trio of ladies complaining about how the bathrooms were THE WORST designed restrooms of all time and that they were absolutely disgusting. So, I figured that I should pop in before they get any worse due to the already drunken crowd. What I found was comical to say the least. It was the standard gendered bathroom that you find at most clubs and small venues, originally designed to serve a single patron at a time but then hastily remodeled to include at least one more toilet to help with traffic. The plywood stalls were clean and well-stocked, the lights worked, the toilets flushed, the trash can wasn't overflowing, and the sink had both soap and paper towels. Nothing separates the posers from the punks like a visit to an unremarkable bathroom: they were complaining about haphazardly built stalls and I was wondering, "Where's the art?"
Clevelanders love to drink, it’s what they do best and unfortunately for the sole bartender, this crowd came thirsty and eager to drown the stagnation of winter away on this unusually warm evening. However, this bartender, despite handling a crowd at least three times bigger than the recommended number of people per bartender, was in the flow. Yes, the wait may have seemed entirely too long for my more privileged peers. But I recognized the working-class hustle of the woman behind the bar who was on fire serving drinks to patrons at a free show in a venue rapidly approaching capacity. This girl was moving methodically like lightening through a tsunami of complex drink orders despite being left up Shit Creek without a paddle. I wanted so desperately to jump behind the bar and help her, but honestly, I would've probably just been in her way. So, I did the only thing I knew I could do to help, I spoke praise to her game. I explained to other patrons that she had a system and it was working well, she was just bombarded. I told them how to work with her in the system and everyone in my circle got their drink before the show started. Honestly, the show could have sucked and I would still likely return to Five O’Clock Lounge purely for the cheap drinks and incredible service.
First up, came the Cardboard Caskets, and this band opened so strongly that I was initially concerned about how Firebarker could possibly follow-up this act. I was concerned for Phoenix Radastic and ASMR who I had already promised the weekly spotlight feature to after their incredible performance opening up for The Bastard Suns. Hell, I was getting anxious for The Bastard Suns, this band was stealing everyone's thunder. They had this cool folk punk vibe with an infusion of The Strokes and glimmering hints of Menzingers, Lumineers, Mumford & Suns, and maybe even Modest Mouse influences. The crowd was eating out of their hands, everyone seemed completely enraptured. In this magical moment, I thought to myself, "Holy Shit, is this really happening? Did I just stumble a diamond in the rough with the potential to be the next big thing?"
I pulled out my phone to start recording. I wanted so desperately to capture lightening in a bottle, and then the unthinkable happened: technical issues. Something wasn't working, the vocalist/guitarist seemed distraught, and then there was a long pause. And while this may have felt disastrous to the band, I hope they are reading this because I want them to know that I witnessed the ultimate sign of their potential: the crowd did not thin. Instead of heading to the bathroom or taking advantage of the now uncrowded bar, the VAST majority of the audience waited to hear more because they knew Cardboard Caskets had come with the fire.
My husband said that he was fairly certain that this was the Caskets' first show and pleaded with me to not mention this incident. However, I find these moments to be far more telling. Bands live and die by their crowd's response and this crowd wanted more, even if it meant being inconvenienced by the deafening and unexpected silence. Eventually the issue was resolved. The band recovered with a solid and sometimes rousing performance, but was unable to recapture the earth-shattering momentum they had initially. Cardboard Caskets have definitely landed #ontheradar and I hope to see them again, so I can capture the magic that slipped through my fingers this time.
Next came the triumphant return of the one and only Firebarker. Through no fault of their own, it has been entirely too long since this band hit the stage and yet this band can draw a remarkable crowd especially when the weather in Cleveland cooperates. Firebarker's fandom consists predominantly of friends, former classmates, coworkers, and fellow suburbanites. Many of which, aren't necessarily fans of punk or may have had a "punk" phase in high school but would not be considered diehard now. This may seem like an odd following for a punk band, but there is no truer testament of the axiomatic amalgamation that is Firebarker.
There is so much more to the inexplicably groovy hardcore turned dutiful dadcore band than meets the eye. While it's unlikely that a local layman would be able to identify Firebarker enigmatic and beguiling appeal, a lifelong musician and/or music connoisseur could likely put their finger on it. So how does a local punk band manage to ensnare such suburban audiences consisting of more "former" punks than "current" ones? The answer lies intrinsically in the way its members interlace their individual musical influences into a delectably rich menagerie of sound.
I was lucky enough to talk to the band about their musical influences before the show and the conversation, while awkward at times, provided invaluable insights into their why their music is so mesmerizing to punks and non-punks alike. Of course the band shared many of the same musical influences from the realm of punk including but not limited to Lagwagon, No Use for A Name, NoFX, Propaghandi and classic Green Day. However, the band's individual influences vary wildly.
Tim Kelly thought I would be surprised by the fact that he was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. As if he doesn't look and sound like a more punk iteration of Dylan in the long line of personas adopted by the famous musician. I might not have guessed Paul Simon, but now I am starting to see rhythmic patterns in his lyrical structures that mirror the legendary songwriter. Nathan Turok sites Paul Mccartney as the influence behind his stalwart. And while it is easy to see how Dan Wilson was inspired by Slash and Mike Ness of Social Distortion, the flavors of Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys are still very much there despite being more nuanced.
Overall, Firebarker's performance was worthy of the #wherearetheyplayingnext tag because this band has such versatility and range especially for a punk band. I could easily see them opening up an unmercifully rabid pit at a place like The Stoop with songs like "Canned Help Butt Look" or "Hawaii 6up" or entertaining day-drinking crowds at a local rock festival with tracks like "Get Me a Drink" or "Wilson's March. While every member of the band had an outstanding performance, especially Brett Smith (drummer) who I think had his best performance to date, I must admit that the band's chemistry has changed quite a bit since their last pre-pandemic show. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, I just think they need to play a few more live shows to recapture the same synergy that they had before.
From a technical standpoint Dan Wilson came to melt faces with his dynamic solos and mind-bending syncopations. This was also one of his cleanest performances, at least in the time that I have known him. However, knowing him personally, I think his on-stage presence felt a little stiffer than usual. Perhaps it was nerves or some other factor, however, I missed his carefree fluidity and occasional improvisation that come from his puerile nature and gregarious charm. There is a fine line between playing tight and playing too tightly. Wilson walked that line like a tightrope, a safe yet smart decision for their post-covid debut.
Married life and fatherhood look good on Tim Kelly, whose voice is naturally raspy and heady which can leave the vocal cords fatigued, especially when one isn't properly hydrated. The vocalist and rhythm guitarist had a personal water jug on stage that he would occasionally drink from between songs. This kind of personal maintenance and self-care is a radical departure from the chaotic yet still charismatic frontman that I encountered at my first Firebarker show several years ago. Tim's performance on guitar was clean, but not the cleanest I have ever seen from him. However, the last time I saw Firebarker perform before the pandemic, Tim was just in his flow state. Still, not even the greatest musicians who have ever lived can achieve that on demand, it just kind of happens naturally. That being said, I think his voice sounded as good ever and his range slightly improved, but most of all his vocal stamina was vastly improved.
Finally, that brings us to Nate Torok, who I consider the glue that holds Firebarker together, at least from a musical stance. Wilson, Kelly, and Smith are three musicians with radically different styles and influences yet Turok manages to provides steadfast and unwavering rhythms to neatly tie everything together. Bassists never get enough credit, and from a personality standpoint the rhythm section of Firebarker is far less loquacious than their guitar-playing counterparts. However, Nate has always captivated me as a bassist because his playing has a bluesy and at times almost jazzy quality to it. Torok also uses the E string, and more specifically, the overused and often abused open E in healthy moderation, which is something that I appreciate as a fellow bass player. Torok's utilization of notes along both the A and D strings is fundamental in bridging Wilson's frantic yet finessed melodies with Smith's more sinewy hardcore rudiments.
I hope we see more of both bands this year. As always, encourage the bands you love to play out often and actually go to their shows. Buy their merch and show them plenty of love on social media. Until next time, stay safe in the pit.