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Downtown Brown: What Would Lester Bangs Do?

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

As a kid, I dreamt of being a rockstar. I idolized Ace Frehley of KISS. I wanted to be the lead guitarist in a famous heavy metal band, and I had every intention of marrying and divorcing Jack Osbourne. By the time I reached middle school, those daydreams had started to shift. Due to a myriad of factors, I transitioned from a flamboyant child vying for my parent’s attention to a quiet, bookish adolescent beloved by teachers. Now, as an adult unraveling a tangled web of trauma, I am trying to understand which version of me was my true self and which was a mask that I adopted to survive.

To say the last month was a rollercoaster would be an understatement. My husband joined a band. Juggling my day job with my intentions of eventually making this my career became increasingly complex as opportunities in the corporate world presented themselves during a week stacked with shows. For the first time since the conception of this site, I had to drop a show from my calendar as it interfered with a potential opportunity to earn more money to fund Bands in the Bus. I swung from a depressive episode into hypomania and then back into a depressive one while my psyche wrestled with understanding the difference between fame and celebrity. As a child, I dreamt of being a famous rockstar whose art could afford them a semi-extravagant lifestyle. I never imagined a scenario where I would be recognized in a grocery store while still struggling to figure out how I am going to afford a new camera lens, computer, and equipment for a podcast.

But I digress to the real reason you are here: show reviews. As I adjust to attending shows on more nights than not in the coming weeks, I will be experimenting with various styles and formats for this blog. I have a desperate urge to showcase and write about every band I see. However, until I can officially transition to this being my full-time job, the amount of time I can spend writing about each band decreases as the number of bands I see in any given week increases. I contemplated how I would announce this, but then I asked myself a critical question: What would Lester Bangs do?

The answer to that is simple: Lester Bangs would do whatever the fuck he wanted and write about whatever he pleased. He would never feel the need to explain himself. That sounds easy enough—if we ignore the fact that Lester Bangs was constantly having his utilities and phone line disconnected because he couldn’t pay his own bills. Still, I want to give every single band individualized attention, and I have access to platforms that Lester Bangs could have never imagined. So, from here on out, while nearly every band will be highlighted in some way, not every band will not be receiving near-equal attention. So, it’s critical that you follow all of my channels, not just the blog, because I will be producing, sharing, and promoting different content for Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Depending on how much their performance inspires me in any given week, a band could be featured on one or all of these channels. So, onwards to the show.

It was the evening of the Downtown Brown show and the rock star lifestyle fueled by hypomania and day job burnout had me at my breaking point. I stood in the bathroom, staring at my reflection as a familiar wave of crushing terror engulfed me. I was in the midst of the worst panic attack in recent memory, and nothing was helping. I could feel expectations rising, and pressure building as imposter syndrome shook me to my core. I felt like I could never measure up.

As my calendar filled with more and more shows, I realized the sheer amount of unpaid labor that I must do before I could make a single dime doing what I love. I was beginning to question if Bands in the Bus would ever succeed or whether it is a foolhardy endeavor and a portrait of my own hubris. I was being hailed as a female Lester Bangs. However, at this moment, my mental health was deteriorating as an avalanche of show invites flooded my inbox. What would Lester Bangs do? It doesn’t matter. At the time of his death, the most influential rock critic of all time was just 33 years old—the same age as me—and I’m just getting started.

When we arrived at the show, I wasn’t doing any better, but I was still doing my best to mask because I didn’t want to alarm anyone. The co-owners of The Stoop and many of its regulars have become like a second family to me in just a few months. There are few things more distressing than telling someone who, at the sight of a single tear rolling down your cheek, is willing to take on the entire world for you that they can’t help. My anxiety was once again ramping up as I struggled with the cacophony of pre-show noise, as I often do, and I was quickly becoming overwhelmed. Fighting back the tears, I quickly downed a beer in an attempt to desensitize myself, which usually works to some degree, but being in mania, it did nothing. I wasn’t going to be able to cover this show in any capacity; I just knew it. My husband reassured me that all of my anxieties would melt away once the music started, and if they didn’t, we could go home.

What most people don’t realize about Bands in the Bus is that it’s actually a partnership. Yes, I might be the face of the business as it was my idea to start the website, and I do 100 percent of the writing for the blog. However, this business wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for my husband, who properly introduced me to punk, which is why I fell so madly in love with live music. He has such an appreciation for all genres of music and is a living encyclopedia of punk history. So, when the music started, and I was still deep in the throes of a terrible panic attack, my husband sprang into action by helping me shoot video footage, take photographs, and even contributed to my notes with his extensive knowledge of music.

These small gestures were exceptionally significant during Black Market Party’s set when I was still suffering from a severe panic attack. His notes throughout their set were fundamental to me developing an appreciation for the band as I gradually relaxed. I knew the band was good even when they weren’t resonating with me initially. In my notes, I immediately noted that I needed to hear this band again while in a better mindset because aside from looking like an Irish grunge band, BMP had a certain je ne sais quoi that I was struggling to articulate. I even put in my notes, “This band reminds me of eating honeydew, caesar salad, or even pussy for the first time. You know it doesn’t taste bad... it’s just surprisingly different than expected.” Meanwhile, my husband was fully dialed into their jam band/stoner rock vibes and psychedelic sound as he compared them to a wide range of bands, including Canned Heat, Fu Manchu, Devo, and Black Flag.

Halfway through their set, I was starting to feel better when the vocalist and rhythm guitarist introduced a song with “This is called ‘Changes,’ it’s about being a piece of shit.” And, I’m not going to lie, for the first time in hours, I felt my anxiety alleviate a little, and I even danced a little to that particular song. Towards the end of their set, they did an absolutely electrified cover of “Fell In Love With A Girl” by the White Stripes. It could serve as a textbook example of how often you should point the microphone to the crowd without it becoming obnoxious or compromising the song’s integrity. Black Market Party has definitely landed #ontheradar and earned the #wherearetheyplayingnext tag because I still want to see them while in a better mental state. However, I will say that I think the second half of their set packs far more heat than the first half.

As Bone Knife took the stage, I was beginning to realize that the Columbus music scene is as “tight-knit” as my husband’s friend group. The guitarist in the Plan B’s that replicated the keyboard solo on the “Cool Kids” cover is also the vocalist and a guitarist in Bone Knife. I don’t even want to say rhythm guitarist in this case. Is Dave Mustaine technically the “rhythm guitarist” in Megadeth? Yes, but only because he was fired as the lead guitarist in Metallica—and it wasn’t because they needed a better guitarist. David Ramsey of Bone Knife has definitely earned the distinct honor of being the first #locallegend recognized by Bands in the Bus, based on his versatility alone. We will undoubtedly feature a more in-depth analysis of Bone Knife as I see more of them in the future.

I was finally starting to feel a little better when Downtown Brown took the stage. About 18 months before we met, my husband filled in for the drummer in his buddy’s band when they opened for Downtown Brown at the Agora. He loved their performance that night. So, he was hyped about this show since it was announced. Honestly, we might have missed this particular show had he not been so familiar with Downtown Brown and hyping their bass player all week long.

But as the band took the stage for a soundcheck, I was beginning to have my doubts. I always get suspicious when I see a bassist pull out a five-string bass because, in my experience, the average bass player utilizes only one or two strings on most occasions. The lead vocalist/guitarist, Neebo, was also getting frustrated with The Stoop’s sound system, which isn’t as advanced as other venues. However, The Stoop literally opened just a few months before the pandemic, and then live music stopped for 18 months. Someday, The Stoop will be able to upgrade its sound system. Until then, bands just need to trust that Matt and Vinny can DIY a solution to just about any problem.

However, those slightly tense moments were a great reminder that I was not the only mentally ill person in the room whose anxiety often manifests as irritable perfectionism. The interesting thing about the whole ordeal was that at no point did Neebo sound bad. He actually sounded fantastic. The crowd was getting into it and were even dancing as the band played partial songs during soundcheck. But he didn’t think he sounded good enough, which was getting to him. I once again felt myself growing anxious as I could tell that he was getting agitated. I don’t think artists realize how bad a band has to be for the crowd at The Stoop to not be entirely engaged in the music. BUT, to play devil’s advocate, I still appreciate the fact that he was so dedicated to providing us with the highest degree of audio fidelity and the best experience possible.

Remember what I said earlier about my anxiety melting away when the music starts? Well, it finally happened once Downtown Brown’s set started. The tension in the air dissipated and my whole body felt compelled to dance, and I danced the remainder of the night away as if I had never experienced anxiety in my entire life. The band’s performance was phenomenal. Each of its members contributed something that was uniquely their own to the band’s multi-faceted sound.

The bass player effortlessly blended driving punk rock rhythms with funky grooves using all five strings and occasionally even incorporated some jazzier or bluesy elements that the saxophone player further emphasized. Meanwhile, the drummer did a fantastic job of keeping even the most deranged or depressing songs dance-worthy while tying all the various elements and musical stylings from the other members together.

After the show, my husband and I were both out of breath due partly to the dancing but mainly because the performance was so incredibly profound and emotionally rousing. We quickly bought a record from the Downtown Brown merch table and left before my anxiety could intensify again. My husband raved about the performance during our walk down Eureka back to the car, as he often does during this particular walk following an outstanding show at The Stoop. There is something different about seeing a band live at The Stoop because the venue is so intimate. You get to feel the elation of the musicians as the crowd eats out of their hands, and the audience’s warm reception provides them with a transformative experience. As we got in the car, my husband questioned why Downtown Brown wasn’t more popular of a band, why weren’t they selling out places at least the size of the Summit or even The Newport? His theory is that all the genre-bending, blending, and sometimes erratic jumps in musical stylings likely throw off layman listeners that just want to hear something cohesive enough to drown out the noise of their everyday lives.

My theory goes a bit deeper. About halfway into the Downtown Brown set, Neebo made a comment gently reminding the audience members engaging in the consumption of alcohol to be careful because it is a depressant. Toward the end of their set, the audience member offered the band a drink, to which they all declined. Neebo politely but firmly responded that he doesn’t drink. As the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, this interaction was laced with so much familiarity, especially in the context of his previous statement about alcohol being a depressant. That kind of mental health management typically only comes after hitting your rock bottom. It hit me that perhaps outside of places like The Stoop, Downtown Brown might not have the mass appeal. While their music makes people like me, who wrestle with bipolar disorder daily despite appearing to be “high-functioning,” feel seen, I am sure it would make most neurotypicals uncomfortable. All the sudden tempo changes, the shifts in genres combined with sardonic vocal syncopations, and the frequent, intense breakdowns: Downtown Brown’s music is the closest thing most non-mentally ill people can get to experiencing mental illness. Unfortunately, most of society isn’t ready to lean in and experience that kind of empathy.

So while I wish Neebo and the rest of Downtown Brown’s never had to worry about money after more than 20 years in the music game, I am grateful that their music is so accessible to people like me. I am grateful that the other Stoop Kids and I can see artists express how they navigate the turbulent waters of mental illness alongside us in such an intimate setting. Managing mental illness is like consistently hitting a moving target while riding on horseback. It requires constant real-time adjustments, and occasionally you need a reminder that one more beer won’t alleviate the symptoms of mania and will only make the eventual crash harder. As an artist, I would like to think that it's better for your work to be incredibly meaningful to a smaller audience than superficially consumed by all—but those are themes that I am still exploring.

Until next time, take care of each other in the pit and make sure you take your meds.

P.S. You can help keep Bands in the Bus free for everyone and prevent the use of pay walls by donating when, how, and what you can to our cause. Your local music scene thanks you for your support.

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