I’m not going to lie. I’m not entirely familiar with Highly Suspect’s discography. Truth be told, the only reason why I was at this particular show is because my girlfriend had won tickets from 98 Rock and asked that I tag along. Generally I’m a little offput by the post-grunge music of the 21st century. The blues-influenced soft verse/hard chorus stylings made popular by bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, then carried on by groups like Live, Black Crowes, and Foo Fighters, has been played damn-near to death in the two decades since these groups jolted our airwaves. And though the music I hear playing on the radio is always close to that ‘90s taste, it’s always distinctly off by a molecule or two. There’s a missing ingredient: a zeitgeist that is unlikely to come back, try as the fans and music labels may to recapture it.
Really, that’s just the way artistic movements work–an era’s cultural, political, and social climate produces a feeling in the masses which then births some unique art forms. Each of these art forms serve their purpose, whether to express, comment on, or distract consumers from the age they live in. Then these art forms fade away and are replaced as the next generation comes along. And goddammit, I’m okay with that, even if it means that the old is eaten by the fresh. That’s how it happens in nature, so why shouldn’t it happen in art? Why are we so busy catering to nostalgia when we could be crafting something invigoratingly unheard of?
Like I’ve said before, nothing is ever created in a vacuum. The generational ideas that culminate in the arts, in this instance the music, of an age feeds directly from past references. A 2011 article from The Atlantic expounds on this topic as it talks about “Generation X’s fixation on their ‘80s childhoods, and even Happy Days trading on fond memories for the ‘50s during the early ‘70s. … [but while] recycling the past is nothing new … the vast digital advances of the most-recent decade have caused the amount of unimaginative and static retro culture to explode.”
Okay, I’ve rambled long enough, so this is where bands like Highly Suspect and And the Kid come in. Though they draw from the past, they do not allow themselves to get stuck in it.
As I stood in the back, near the brighter-lit of the venue’s three bars, I watched openers AtK give one of the most raw performances I’d seen in a long time. Daubed in glitter and taunting a lifesize latex deer, which they claim to have found in the woods of DC and named Andea, the trio of young women carried an eccentric charm. Their sound was pure and off the cuff, like a chimera birthed from the cosmic residue of Loretta Lynn and Beck. Their tunes were folksy, yet not in the Dylanesque manner common to mainstream radio, nor the washboard-and-banjo folk punk clunkings found in the indie circuit. No, a better description of their sound would be if the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack were played electric–swampy, often gentle, yet pissed off enough to make you feel each note pass through your very bones.
This served as a contrast to the rollicking Highly Suspect. Originally formed nearly a decade ago as a cover band in Massachusetts, the band has only recently come to see mainstream success with their 2015 breakout hit “Lydia.” Yet if that song is the only one you’ve heard, you’re actually missing out. The group’s repertoire is far more expansive, each song having the potential to become a hit, while their stage presence is something to behold in its own right.
Despite the smallness of the venue, the band came onstage in true rockstar fashion and flair. Opening with the aptly named track “Bath Salts,” the group, especially frontman Johnny Stevens, immediately proceeded into fits of flailing and jumping to the literal beat of their own drum. Though their sound could be best described as bluesy, there was a youthful almost punkiness to their performance as they stomped, clapped, and hocked loogies on stage.
My girlfriend and I moved closer to the front to get a better look at their wild antics. It was around this time that bassist Richard Meyer ran into some trouble, his instrument completely cutting out midway through a song. But, hey, that’s Baltimore’s music scene for you–loud, dripping with adrenaline, and often a little broken. If anything, the technical issues only added to the performance, as the rest of the band never stopped, never even flinched or missed a note as Meyer attempted to get his rig working again. As a testament to their prowess, they never lost the moment. Even after the song had ended and the bass still rang dead, Stevens used it as an opportunity to play a solo guitar and vocal rendition of their song “Mom” off their latest album Mister Asylum.
Highly Suspect carries the energy and panache of arena rockers, yet still maintains the accessibility and lightheartedness of an indie act. For example, after ending their set with an explosive performance of “Lydia,” the band returned to their instruments and asked, “Want us to play more?” at which point Stevenson began freestyle rapping into the mic.
I feel that, lately, I’ve talked at length about the influence of the past on the present. “Sometimes we play new songs,” Stevenson stated at one point. “It’s not to alienate you all. It’s to pull you in.” Artists, especially musicians, need to be aware of how much they become their influences, lest they become another nostalgia act. I like the idea of taking pieces of yesterday’s structures to build today’s artistic foundations. The key is to still build something new, something exciting. It’s good to see bands like Highly Suspect doing just that.
Not bad for a Massachusetts cover band. Not bad at all.