Breakin’ Even Fest 2019, April 26-28, 2019 at The Pie Shop, Washington, DC by Will Malkus

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All photos by Lorien Lamarr

In terms of size, Breakin’ Even Fest occupies the space somewhere between the three-day festival that you’re willing to drive across a few states to get to and the show your music booker friend puts on for their birthday every year, but in terms of atmosphere and ethics Breakin’ Even is one of the best fests out there. Period. Full stop. As the name implies, Breakin’ Even Presents (the bookers who put on the fest) refuse to make a profit off of the event: 100% of the proceeds from ticket and raffle sales go to the bands performing, and all profits from festival merch go to Girls Rock DC, a nonprofit aimed at creating creative and safe spaces for girls, nonbinary, and trans youths through music education. After taking 2018 off, Breakin’ Even Fest found a new home this year at the Pie Shop venue above Dangerously Delicious Pies and expanded from a two-night fest to three full nights of local and touring bands.

Despite only being around for three years, Breakin’ Even has the presentation and organization of a much larger and more established festival; all three nights ran smoothly and stayed on schedule, the raffle prizes were well worth it (hefty mystery packs of vinyl from labels like Wiretap and Snubbed Records), and individualized backgrounds projected behind each of the acts. On top of that, Breakin’ Even had more women, POC, and queer representation in their lineup than lots of festivals two or three (or four or five) times their size, which I’m including not to praise the fest for doing what should be obvious in 2019 punk but more to comment on all the bookers out there who say it’s “too hard” or that audiences aren’t interested in more diverse shows. Meanwhile, Breakin’ Even Fest was seven tickets short of a complete weekend sellout, proving the audiences aren’t the uninterested ones.

Before their hiatus I’d missed the first two Breakin’ Even Fests, so I was excited to have the opportunity to cover their comeback and it did not disappoint.

Breakin’ Even Fest Night One, 4/26/19

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Kicking off the whole fest with a twenty-ish minute set of blistering garage punk, Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb hit the crowd with the perfect injection of energy to set the pace of the weekend. The DC/Baltimore four-piece blends a variety of old school punk sound into something just different enough to get your blood pumping, and I especially loved the interplay of Mike L’s Joe Strummer vocals with Sal Go’s riot grrrl growl. I have a soft spot for any punk band that can make a live show sound like you’re hearing it on lo-fi vinyl, and any band that can write a song like “The Last Skinjob” (a rumination on conformity contextualized as a Blade Runner reference) instantly has my heart.

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After SWALTB we had a few brief moments to cool down before the organizers of Breakin’ Even Fest themselves, American Television, took the stage. Ever-humble, they launched into their set with no preamble and they came hard with some of the best timing and smiles of the fest. If there’s one thing you can say about American Television it’s that they really come alive while playing these shows together, and it’s always nice to see how genuinely excited they are up on stage. I’m always happy to hear personal favorite of mine, “The Creek,” an upbeat autobiographical jam that frontman Steven Rovery was able to dedicate to his son Milo in the audience.

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Next up was DC’s own HOMOSUPERIOR, one of the most important contemporary queercore bands in the canon and instigators of the first Breakin’ Even Fest 2019 mosh pit. I love seeing hardcore bands made up of more than just white men; so much of the hardcore scene sounds so similar that just changing one or two of those elements can breathe new life into an entire canon. HOMOSUPERIOR blew the crowd away both literally and figuratively with an assault of heavy guitars and dark riffs that should feel wholly at odds with frontperson Donna’s high-pitched vocals, yet the middle ground where the two meet is all the more interesting sonically for the discord. If you ever get the chance to see HOMOSUPERIOR live I’d advise you not to sleep on it, you won’t regret it.

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Night one ended with a typical Kali Masi set, which is to say some of the most groundbreaking and complex math-y punk to ever come out of the prolific Midwestern scene, accompanied by Sam Porter’s trademark raspy yells. As alarming as it was to see Sam and Wes both freshly shorn, this Kali Masi set was one of my most anticipated of the whole fest and I was not disappointed. The self-described “angular punk” band from Chicago perfectly rounded out a night of local talent all informed by the Dischord sound to one degree or another with some stylistic diversity. The energy in the room was palpable as, for the first (but not the last) time that weekend, the whole floor shook and felt like it might give out. As night one came to a close The Pie Shop was still standing, issuing a silent challenge to the bands playing the next two nights that they’d better bring their A-game.

Breakin’ Even Fest Night Two, 4/27/19

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On Saturday Lorien Lamarr (Aretesophist Photography) and I made our way back to The Pie Shop for the second (SOLD OUT!) night of Breakin’ Even Fest 2019, where Baltimore’s own Subtastics were getting ready to unleash the first high-energy power punk songs of the fest. Their straightforward and fast guitar-bass-drums-plus-harmonies formula was exactly the caffeine boost I needed to recharge from the night before. Subtastics would sound at home on any Lookout! Records comp, but like most Baltimore bands they don’t take themselves too seriously. Guitarist Jeremy Parmentier suffered through an entire set wearing a sweater of what appeared to be a muscular torso in a pepperoni pizza crop top which he explained to the crowd he had received for Christmas and been told he would never wear, so what better place to prove the haters wrong than on stage at a sold-out punk festival?

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Around this time on Saturday we started entering the “dark horse” phase of Breakin’ Even Fest, as I called it, so named because I had never heard of the next two bands that played but I fell in love with both of them almost immediately. Night Surf from NYC played first and kept the high we were all experiencing after Subtastics going strong with their more polished but no less energetic brand of whoa-oh pop punk. Despite their longest song being just over two minutes and their set clocking in at barely fifteen minutes, the crowd was clearly enamored with the four-piece (though that could have something to do with them distributing a bag full of beloved local trash beer National Bohemian to every single member of the crowd). Night Surf graduated from the same school of grittier pop punk as The Menzingers and The Wonder Years, and I would not have blinked twice if I’d heard their song “Enemies” on my local punk radio station in the late 2000s.

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I really struggle to try to describe the next band in the Breakin’ Even Fest lineup, other than to say that if you’re familiar with Philadelphia, Pa.’s DIY scene this band sounds like Philly DIY. Trash Boy is a group of incredibly proficient musicians making twinkly, twangy, weird-as-fuck music with no-holds-barred social commentary and fuzzed-out guitars. Within the first five minutes of their set they had the crowd dancing and singing along to their ridiculously catchy choruses, and I can personally attest that I have had their song “Lizard People” stuck in my head for a solid week at this point. Trash Boy provided a welcome change of pace to the lineup the audience clearly appreciated, and I was informed after the fact that they sometimes do a cover of PUP’s “DVP” that I now desperately want to hear, which should tell you how highly I regard this band’s musical abilities.

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Proper. (née Great Wight) were another band that I was going to Breakin’ Even Fest already excited to see. I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to them after hearing about their performances repeatedly from Lorien Lamarr, and I’m happy to report that their performance absolutely lived up to her descriptions. Proper.’s music doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre—but that only makes it all the more interesting to listen to. If you like emo-tinged indie pop then you’ll probably like Proper., but even that description doesn’t do justice to their unique Brooklyn-born sound. Couple that je ne sais quoi with lyrics that are unflinchingly honest, poetic, and often conversational and you have a pretty good sense of the intimate experience that Proper. brings to their shows. I have rarely seen a band put so much vulnerability into their music and still make a sold-out show feel like you’re watching them play in someone’s living room. I am already counting down the days until I can see Proper. again later this month at Pouzza Fest in Montreal.

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There have been a bunch of new and exciting punk acts coming out of Pittsburgh, Pa. recently, but perhaps the one that is generating the most buzz, and confusion, is World’s Scariest Police Chases. Armed with three members named Dan, album titles like Nofx…and Out Come the Wolves Dookie and Ablum 3, and an incredibly earnest hardcore sound, it’s impossible to get a read on World’s Scariest Police Chases or what they’re all about. Are they asshole punks out to offend as many people as possible, or are they gifted satirists subtly criticizing the former? At the end of the day it didn’t seem to matter to the late night Breakin’ Even Fest crowd, who lost their minds almost as soon as the band kicked off their set and were slamming and hanging from the chandeliers within moments. Sometimes after a long day of drinking and music you just want to jump around alongside all of your fellow punks, and it was clear that we had reached that point in the night. Kudos to Breakin’ Even Presents for seeing that one coming.

Breakin’ Even Fest Night Three, 4/28/19

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As far as I can tell, Fail Sons, the adamantly Takoma Park (“NOT DC!”) band that kicked off the final night of Breakin’ Even Fest, have only been together since December of 2018, which really surprised me given their chemistry on stage. They played a solid set of good old-fashioned, high-octane punk with exceptionally tight two-guitar-one-bass riffs, Bay-Area vocals provided by lead singer James Berbert, and one of the hardest working drummers of the entire fest in Mark Jubert. As of right now all I could find from them online was a demo tape, but I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more from them in the future.

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As we approach the home stretch of Breakin’ Even Fest it gets tricky, because the organizers saved three of the best bands for an incredibly strong finish. Taking us into the beginning of the end was DoubleMotorcycle from Frederick, Md., a three-piece act that definitely could be described as a band but also just as easily as a performance art collective. They sound a little like if Smashing Pumpkins had invented the dreampop genre a decade early, but their songs (all of which are genuinely good, by the way) are often punctuated by moments like lead singer and guitarist Joe Jalette kicking off one shoe onto his pedal board or drummer Colin McGuire walking out into the crowd and high-fiving willing participants mid-song. The ultimate moment of high art, however, came during the five-plus-minute climax of their final song, when McGuire abandoned his kit once more to place one of his cymbals into the crowd and relegate the duty of keeping time on it to an audience member. The set ended just as suddenly as it had begun, leaving most of us trying to process what we had just been a part of—a sure sign of good art.

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Coming in hot right at the end was one of the bands I suspect most people had come to see—Charlotte, N.C.’s endlessly energetic party band singing about remarkably sad topics: Dollar Signs. This was easily the wildest set of Breakin’ Even Fest 2019; the Pie Shop was packed wall-to-wall, everyone was jumping so hard I thought for sure the floor would give out, and at least one crowd surfer went flying right by my head. Dollar Signs describes their shows as “…group therapy for weekend warriors who have to work jobs that they hate,” and at the end of the day isn’t that what brings us all together at shows like Breakin’ Even Fest in the first place? Whenever Dollar Signs plays, the sense of community in the room and pure joy radiating from the crowd are palpable. I don’t know who was smiling harder; us or the members of the “Student Loan-core” band themselves. If you’ve had a rough day and dance-y basement pop with horns is your thing, Dollar Signs has you covered.

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And finally, twelve bands later, we were almost at the end of Breakin’ Even Fest 2019. There was only one band left to follow Dollar Signs, and it was arguably the only band that could: Worriers. This was a really smart move on the part of the fest organizers, because Lauren Denitzio’s haunting vocals and the band’s heavier rhythms were an excellent cool-down after all the exercise we’d just gotten. It’s always a pleasure to see Worriers live and the current lineup plays so well together that this might have been the best set I’ve seen from them so far. Lauren acknowledged that the crowd was skipping Game of Thrones to see them play and thanked us for making the sacrifice, adding that if they had to pick a character to be from the show it would be, “Brienne of Tarth. Tall and androgynous, go figure.” It was an extremely comforting and peaceful end to Breakin’ Even Fest 2019, and besides; if you didn’t see Mikey Erg at the fest then were you really even at a fest at all?

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Will Malkus is a writer, librarian, and concert photographer based out of Baltimore, Md. You can check out his photography and writing portfolios at charmcorephoto.com/.