Katie here writing another essay for Underwater Sunshine Fest and feeling incredibly privileged that I get to share such special musicians and art with you. This one is a little bit different for me, though, because I’ve already written about the band— Marcy Playground— when they played our inaugural festival last October. In my first article, I wanted to make the point that any band that has survived, thrived, and gotten better over decades is a hell of a lot more than one song. So, having written last time about how they’re not just “the guys who sang ‘Sex and Candy,’” let me tell you a little this time about what they are.
I feel like I have to tell you how outrageously good they were in the Garden Sessions (and I’m going to), if only to explain that the way they quietly rearranged those songs for an intimate space turned out to be a smokescreen for the fact that they were actually the most energized, raucous punk band on the bill.
So let’s talk about Marcy Playground.
Last time I wrote about them, I talked about a blues-esque song called “Memphis,” which evoked the dark soul and R&B of the early 20th century. I said of “Memphis:” “we could all be in this weird little perfect moment together, take guitar like sacrament, share food and campgrounds, tell ghost stories, talk about the way we sometimes think we can smell the devil or hear the breath of God, and listen to Wozniak sing softly and vulnerably while still delivering heavy-hitting, fascinating lyrics.” I wanted to describe the depths that the band (John Wozniak, guitar/vocals; Dylan Keefe, bass; Shlomi Lavie, drums) is capable of by picking a few songs that don’t sound like their traditional number one hit. I also at one point compared their songs to feeling like Neil Young was using Soundgarden as a backing band. I stand behind that, too.
But when they hit the Garden, I knew I hadn’t even begun to fully capture the dimensions of the band. And it got even weirder later that night.
“Rock and Roll Heroes” was an old favorite of mine— one of the songs that scored my (sorry guys) college experience. I had that album MP3 (which I STILL think is a great record title) on repeat that whole year but when I saw them sit down in the Garden and break it down to its elements, I was shocked. Wozniak’s voice still stretches to this range that doesn’t seem natural for someone who is known for a pretty deep timbre. Every time he hits the second line in the verse (yes, it is that specific), you’ll see what I mean. And both Keefe and Lavie excelled in an acoustic setting: they had found a way to run a rhythm section— and a damned good one— without overpowering the vocals and guitar. Again, Ehud Lazin is a genius at filming and recording these bands. I’ll try not to say it in every post but it’s true.
Then they break into “Everything I’ve Loved I’ve Left”, a song that wouldn’t have a hard time fitting in on a Lost Highway or New West compilation. I have loved a lot of different Marcy Playground styles but this song surprised even me. It’s a new song (not on an album yet, as far as I can tell) that recounts all the things the narrator has loved and— not lost, but left. The distinction is really interesting - the narrator has agency – and it reframes the song: He could go back to these things - he still loves most of them - but he’s not going to. Everything from a Chevy Nova to cigarettes (Marlboro Reds: don’t forget the specificity in their songwriting) has been left in the dust… to the point where he’s singing to his partner to caution her:
Everything I loved I left
You’re the sun
You’re the moon
You’re the waves that break on the shore
But don’t be surprised if you see my bag by the door
Who knows, you might be next
Everything I’ve loved, I’ve left
Between the small guitar solo and the way Lavie was becoming more and more experimental with the drum brushes, the way Keefe just kept steady, despite clearly being full of energy that wasn’t quite natural in this setting, I should have seen what was coming that evening. I’ve been going to concerts my whole life. But I actually walked away from their Garden Session thinking, “Weird. They’re going to put on a pop/alt-country show.”
Well, if you were at the Bowery Electric in October 2018 for our inaugural UWSF— you know they didn’t even come CLOSE to doing that. I had planted myself by the stairs (if you’re someone who is not always great at standing up, stairs with a wall are a gift), and when the first few boisterous, joyful notes came out of the monitors, I forgot these were the same wonderful people I’d had lunch with, and I forgot ALL ABOUT the Garden Sessions. To say their live performance is a punk act is an understatement. They’re a freight train. Keefe and Lavie are both masters of complicated rhythms and time signatures, and that guitar solo from “Everything I’ve Loved I’ve Left” should have tipped me off that he was basically just biding his time until he could get an electric guitar and an amp in his hands. I was overwhelmed by crashing walls of melody and volume. I was “baptized by sound,” the way you feel when it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it’s all encompassing.
They played old favorites, taught a few people in the audience some new favorites to sing along with, and, although they’re a big enough band to get away with phoning it in, generally played with enough passion that it felt like they soaked the entire audience in water and then plugged our collective synapses into a power socket. It was…ummm…lit.
At one point, after Woz slung his guitar into the amp to create some feedback, he and Keefe stood facing each other, the guitar and the bass locked in some kind of rhythm, pushing and pulling the instruments closer and further away from each other. It was a spectacle, sure, but it was also really effective at creating a dissonance that seems too dirty for it to have just been a guitar pedal.
It’s true of a lot of creative people that they downplay their “job”— writer, artist, musician, or whatever it is they do. I, myself, am guilty of that kind of imposter syndrome. I know for me, it’s partially that I certainly don’t see myself on the same level as the writers I look up to. But I also know part of it is borderline superstition: if I want something too much, it can’t happen. And I WANT to be a writer, especially a music journalist. Woz and I talked about that among other things and it really helped me add to my understanding of myself, my internal business card. Since last October I’ve been trying to find a way to explain to people how what Woz said made me feel legitimate in a way I often feel like I’m faking but it’s still not something I know how to put into words.
Either way, it had a big effect on me and maybe just that fact will help you understand what I love about Marcy Playground and music, and actually the Festival itself now that I think about it. It can just be rock and rock or it can be emotionally involving or just outrageously fun or any number of things on the outside, but there are layers to everything, from lyrics to instrumentation to just hanging around after the music is over.
That kind of synthesis, that combination of art, discussion, and camaraderie, is hard to find. I found it here. Maybe you will too.
Anyway, you understand why we have to have them come back for Underwater Sunshine Fest, class of Spring 2020? Me too. I can’t wait for you to watch them with me.
And OK, fine, of course they played “Sex and Candy” at the Garden Sessions. I’ll leave you with that. Every note is deliberate, and the way they broke it down surprised even me— I knew they’d have to change a lot of the seething tone, but they recreate the atmosphere really well within the bounds of a much quieter landscape. Pretty impressive.
ALSO: John Wozniak is currently on a tour called Stories and Songs with Art Alexakis (Everclear), Max Collins (Eve 6), and Chris Collinsworth (Fountains of Wayne). All four musicians are playing intimate sets and sharing stories about the songs and their lives. You should catch them this summer. And if you want a REALLY crazy story, go to @marcyplaygroundofficial on Instagram and see quite literally the wildest story I’ve ever seen about recovering a lost instrument— and it JUST KEEPS GETTING BETTER. Wozniak has been chronicling it via one-minute videos.