Ghetto Cross at 529, Atlanta, GA, August 21, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
The vision that many people have of Atlanta is that of a sheened metropolis that moves too fast for its own good, with almost too much cultural diversity to have a singular pulse—a massive business district by day and a hip-hop club mecca by night. In some respects, these notions are correct; there isn’t much that unifies the capital city of Georgia. Even the somewhat top-tier sports teams, like the always-in-the-playoff-hunt Braves, see under-attended games and loose fandom, much unlike the devout followings you might see elsewhere. One commonality throughout the past decade or so in Atlanta has been the burgeoning and revitalized underground punk rock scene. Bands like Deerhunter and the Black Lips have ripped up the torch placed in 1996 at Fulton Street and Capitol Avenue, painted it black and carried it around the world to represent Atlanta’s virile underground. Tuesday night saw a celebration of that underground—a coming-together of some of the pivotal figures in that scene as Ghetto Cross played their first-ever show.
Ghetto Cross is the project of close friends Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound and Cole Alexander of the Black Lipsthat began in 2008. With an album reportedly recorded and ready to be released, the band wanted to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony of sorts at 529 in East Atlanta, with all of their closest comrades in attendance. The stage was set with a free night of music celebrating the group’s first gig, with both Cox and Alexander to play solo sets, along with the Los Angeles-based garage psychedelia of Dunes leading up to the mysterious Ghetto Cross project. The whole event had a very loose, free-flowing feel, with the crowd constantly feeling that anything could happen at any given moment.
As we walked into 529, the sounds of Bradford Cox delicately playing through the standout from his latest record, “Mona Lisa,” warmly filled the room, seemingly playing as the welcoming tune to some whacked-out cocktail party. Cox played inviting harmonica lines over layers of guitars, building up a lush, impromptu version of the song that felt completely unique. “Unique” was the key word of the night, in fact. The entire evening had the feeling of being something once-in-a-lifetime, and Cox even went so far as to confirm that as he playfully told the crowd, “This isn’t the show. This is the soundcheck.” It turned out he had grown tired of touring the Atlas Sound project as a solo acoustic endeavor and was going to try something a little different that night, so he was going through a sampler that Deerhunter had programmed for their latest tour but never used. He and drummer Frankie Broyles, former front-man of Balkans, current drummer of Lotus Plaza, treated the crowd to somewhat of a mini-set, working through the samples and getting the songs down that would be used in the Atlas Sound set later that night.
After already having felt like we were treated to some amazing music, the show began. Old King Cole Younger, the solo project of Cole Alexander, was up first. He began the set by telling the crowd how unprepared he was for it, and proceeded to prove it to them. He started with a rough cut of an as-yet-untitled Black Lips track that had the familiar country-punk twinge to it—a twangy tumbleweed blowing through the punk club. He somehow seamlessly segued the song into a drum-machine backed hip-hop number that saw Alexander—I’m not sure whether it was freestyling or if it was a Mike Jones song (due to the familiar “Mike Jones!” tag that Alexander applied any chance he could get)—doing his best b-boy stance on stage, sauntering about, spitting rap verses. Already the night was certainly unique. Alexander then introduced Curtis Harding, of the Love Bombs and the singer of one of Alexander’s other projects, Night Sun. The duo ripped through a slow, smoky blues number of theirs titled “On My Way;” backed by the drum-machine pulse and Alexander’s raw guitar licks, Harding soulfully delivered a moving, barebones performance. The final song of Old King Cole Younger’s short set was a cover of G.G. Allin’s cover of Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita,” backed by Bradford Cox on the drums. In his short, but sweet, set, Alexander showed the many facets of his musicality, and above all, his ever-present fun-loving attitude while displaying them.
In many ways, the Atlas Sound set that followed couldn’t be more different from Old King Cole Younger’s loose array of songs—where Alexander went with completely off-the-cuff country punk, Bradford Cox is a meticulous perfectionist, crawling around the stage to reach his effects pedals in time to create just the right wall of sound with which to floor the crowd before him. Not to say the Atlas Sound was some rigidly structured piece of music; on the contrary, his free-flowing guitar freakouts flew through the air as if made up completely on the spot. It’s just that this type of mixture of sampling and layering and letting each song build into a noisy crescendo is Cox’s own version of perfection. The set was heavy on Deerhunter material, due to digging through the unused sampler, and he and Broyles provided memorable versions of some of their biggest songs, such as an extended, thunderous version of Halcyon Digest’s “Earthquake.” As Cox layered swirling guitars around one other, creating a seam from one song to the next, he began to call out his Deerhunter compatriot, Lockett Pundt. He finally lured Pundt on stage to play bass for “Helicopter,” the moving masterpiece also from Halcyon Digest. Pundt confessed that he didn’t remember the bass line, but that he would figure it out as they went, and the trio pounded out a crushingly noisy version of the song. The entire thing dissolved into a veritable sea of noise, nearly impossible for even thoughts to navigate, let alone words.
Though the night was all about Ghetto Cross and the culmination of Atlanta punk, the Los Angeles act Dunes were a welcome fit. Amplifying the psychedelic nature of their shoegaze-tinged songs, they were backed by a projection of a seventies Japanese horror film called House, a bizarre yet totally fitting visual accompaniment. The quartet featuring members of Mika Miko, Finally Punk and Talbot Tangora rifled through a quick set covering most of their debut record, Noctiluca. Drummer Kate Mosher Hall pleaded to the crowd for a home remedy for the hives which she had unfortunately just gotten in New Orleans, and after someone made a suggestion, she replied, “Olive oil? Okay cool. Thanks. Two! Three! Four!” and proceeded to drum ferociously for the entire duration of their set. Singer Stephanie Chan and guitarist Mark Greshowak exchanged guitar lick after guitar lick, beginning to build upon the wall of noise that Atlas Sound had just put between the stage and the crowd. Dunes’ entire set was over seemingly at the blink of an eye, a blur of hooks buried beneath tons of fuzz, and far before the stunning conclusion of House.
By this point a nearly tangible buzz had generated for Ghetto Cross’ show. The quartet made up of Cox, Alexander, Broyles and bassist Asha Lakra took the stage in a blur of smoke and strobe lights, immediately transporting the 529 to a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of noise and energy. The songs had elements of both Cox’s and Alexander’s own personal touches—there were some genuinely memorable hooks buried deep beneath mammoth mountains of sounds and grooves, the familiar garage-jangle of Alexander’s coated in Cox’s preferred curtain of feedback. The two exchanged guttural, reverb-soaked screams on songs like the recently released “Still,” very psychedelic, groove-based studies in punk music. The band sounded truly colossal, and though everyone in the crowd entered the show on an even playing field, completely unfamiliar with the band, save those few members of the Black Lips and Deerhunter scattered about, the entire venue was completely entranced by the end of it. Cox and Alexander exhanged playful banter in between songs over the top of swirling psychedlic noise; the sound seemed to billow around the room with the huge amount of smoke drifting near the ceiling. Ghetto Cross displayed, on their first-ever show, a simultaneously tightness as a band and a loose, nearly about to burst at the seams sound. It was a true experience. As we wandered back out into the night, with the inside of my head sounding like a feedback-laden seashell my ears were ringing so badly, it felt strange going back to being a tiny piece of a seemingly infinitesimal cityscape. For a few hours there I felt like a part of a community, part of something special.