Downtown Boys @ Soda Bar 4/16/17

A few years ago I found myself asking “Why does listening to
politically and socially conscious music tend to be a phase people
grow out of as they get older?” Is it that the exuberant passion they
once had for it during their more formative years vanished as they
transitioned more into adulthood? Did they just become apathetic?
Because certainly the subject matter is never childish, and the issues
addressed usually affect mostly adults.
Logically this then led me to ask myself if trying to influence and
enact positive change through artistic mediums is an unfeasible and
juvenile notion? The countless ways great artists have significantly
shaped our world throughout the course of history would prove
otherwise.

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But whatever the case may be, the one undeniable truth
about music as an entity that can’t be refuted is that it is powerful.
Because it is subjective and can take on different meanings, you never
know how it will affect a person. And therein lies music’s powerful
potential. Maybe some of us get to a point where we get so bogged down
by our individual lives that we look to music more as emotional
catharsis for our more immediate feelings, problems and situations. We
get fed news and information so fast these days about what’s going on
around us that we’d rather just turn our brains off, relax, and not
have to worry about the greater world’s injustices until we start to
get impacted directly.

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This was definitely the case for Downtown Boys‘ guitarist Joey La Neve
DeFrancesco, who met lead vocalist Victoria Ruiz while both working at
the now infamous (largely thanks to Joey) Renaissance Providence Hotel
in Rhode Island. The hotel’s working conditions and treatment of the
workers were atrocious, and with the help of some of his friends from
a large marching band-type collective of musicians he played with at
the time called What Cheer? Brigade, Joey turned in his resignation to
his boss in a video that instantly went viral in 2011.

Wanting to start a band that had more of a politically-minded voice, he started Downtown Boys and soon after recruited Victoria as the band’s singer.
Even though What Cheer? Brigade were already pretty known for their
boisterous appearances at political protests and rallies, with
Downtown Boys Joey in essence trimmed the fat and honed in on an
unconventionally risqué musical style and political agenda that in a
short time led to getting signed to the legendary Sub Pop Records and
playing this year’s Coachella. (UPDATE: Downtown Boys just published
an open letter through the band’s online magazine Spark Mag calling
out and bringing attention to the large donations made to anti-LGBT
groups by 77 year-old billionaire Philip Anschutz, who operates
Coachella through his Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). The band
acknowledged that getting the opportunity to play Coachella “is a
marker of some type of clout in a specific type of music industry” and
that “there was no call for an organized boycott of the festival,
which is why as workers we still played it”. Downtown Boys stated to
the music community that “We need to work to redistribute the cultural
and economic resources so that Coachella no longer holds so much
power”, and that “In addition to this public statement, we will be
donating a portion of the money paid to us by Coachella to
organizations that fight for LGBTQ rights and freedoms, which means
the freedom and justice for all people. We encourage other artists to
do the same.”)

(Link to full article:
http://thesparkmag.com/artists/downtown-boys-open-letter-on-the-politics-of-coachella/)


I first heard of Downtown Boys in 2015 when I listened to their then
newly released second album “Full Communism”. Their irresistbly speedy
dance punk had me hooked instantly, and the anomalous incorporation of
saxophone on every song that is as equally integral musically as
guitar, bass and drums was admittedly refreshing. And like the best
songs with politically charged lyrics, the point of view the band
tried to convey was both relevant and urgent. This stop at Soda Bar
was the band’s first ever show in San Diego. And in accordance with my
initial observation regarding music with a message and knowing the
show’s turnout would’ve been greater had it been all-ages, there was
still an abundance of local fans anxiously waiting to see them live,
as well as a handful of people that drove down from LA to watch them
an additional time.

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Downtown Boys opened up their set very humbly and
meekly, but as soon as the saxophone and drums hit and Joey started
chanting his battle cry that starts off their song “Wave Of History”,
a giant surge of energy cascaded upon the room and engulfed the crowd
like a cresting tsunami. Toes were tapping, heads were bopping, arms
were defiantly thrown into the air. Good-natured shoving and moshing
started to erupt. Some folks even hesitantly began to skank although
there were no ska riffs in the first song whatsoever, which begged the
question “Is skanking appropriate just because a brass instrument is
blaring?”. The question turned out to be rhetorical because in terms of movement and dancing it was literally anything goes. In between songs Victoria gave her trademark
emboldening diatribes covering a bevy of current social and political
ills in today’s America including an increase in racism and misogyny,
Trump’s proposed Mexico wall and the existing big businesses that got
their start with blood money profiting from the institution of
slavery. She has an incredible command of the microphone and stage,
and has a knack for making you feel the gravity of the topics she is
enlightening her audience on through her choice of words and
borderline slam poetry. But by the end of the song you feel the polar
opposite of hopelessness and that through taking action there is light
at the end of the tunnel.

IMG_0357The band’s songs shift between English and Spanish, but spoken messages the band conveys are always in English.
Even if you might not be fluent in Spanish, there is no way you don’t
feel the need to dance and palpable energy exuding from Joe DeGeorge’s sax on
songs like the feminist anthem “Monstro” and the new “Somos Chulas (No
Somos Pendejas)” which translates to ‘We’re Elegant/Intelligent (We’re
Not Dumb)’. And if all of the aforementioned still didn’t whet your
appetite, just wait for Victoria to immerse herself into the crowd and
literally get in your face holding the mic up to your mouth giving you
an opportunity to sing and feel like family. I’ve seen strong females
fronting bands before that looked like either they could hold their
own in a fist fight against the toughest guy, or they could outwit you
into a stupor with their knowledge and words. But rarely have I seen
both qualities in one female playing in a band, and Victoria has both.
As the front woman for a political punk band you have to be tough, and
I surely feel sorry for any person that would try to take her on in
fisticuffs or a verbal debate. The real kicker of their set was their
sped-up cover of the artist the band gets their name from, Bruce
Springsteen’s new-wavish “Dancing In The Dark”, that had the whole
room singing along. The final song of the evening was “Break a Few
Eggs”, and towards the end drummer Norlan Olivio carried one part of
his drum kit into the audience and played it around the room before
getting hoisted into the air by the crowd while continuing to beat his
drum.

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Smiles were aplenty when Downtown Boys finished their set, and as I
looked around the room the manner of dress was varied, from all walks
of life. And that’s when I understood why Downtown Boys are a
political band that people are actually paying attention to. Sure
mixing saxophone with fast punk jams is not done very often. But the
fact is they are a slice-of-life kind of band, and have mass appeal
extending beyond only anarchists dressed in all black and covered in
political punk patches. You don’t feel alienated at their shows, and
there is an all-inclusive aura surrounding their fans because their
music speaks to those wanting to better humanity. In a dire political
climate when tons of lyrically non-political bands and artists like
Nathan Williams of Wavves are using their social media platform to
draw lines in the sand and make their political affiliations clear,
you know times are bad. Just like how everyone can relate to love and
heart break and fucking up, we are all human, and all exist in this
same reality. Unfortunately we all get affected, whether or not we
choose to participate in the political process. We need more bands
like Downtown Boys, not less.

Article by Daniel Leach

Photography by Jose Lopez

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