I made the decision to get to the Know early. Like, really early. Doors were opening at eight pm, and there I was, breaking liquid bread with friends at six. I’m naturally punctual, but moreso, I wanted to eliminate the nightmare outcome: to miss the rarity that is Tragedy. So there I was, absurdly early, just to grab a seat.
The bar was empty except for my trio and the Die Kreuzen shirted bartender. I asked him about the show. He smiled broadly and I saw that the perks of his job were probably better than mine. “This’ll be the first time they’ve played in a year,” he said. I believed him.
I’m not a native Portlander. I moved here, just like every other twenty-something music fan with a dank-fade cum dank-undercut and beard to match. Even now, I don’t even live in the city limits, residing in the affordable and somewhat bustling suburb of Vancouver, WA. I am the bridge-and-tunneler of the Portland Metro Area. But, the reason I moved here is etched on those show fliers that turn streetlights into bloated papier mache monstrosities. The scene is vibrant here, the local band are world-class, and punk rock is ceaselessly happening. When I made the decision to move here, there was a shortlist of natives I wanted to see in action that grew as I became more entrenched in the community. Absent Minds was the first to be checked off the list. Then there was Broadway Calls and Toxic Kid. And of course, No Sleep darlings Lee Corey Oswald. But, every week, when I scoured the ol’ pc-pdx index of shows; searching for something that matched a spare weekend, I never saw Tragedy.
I’m not a huge crust guy. I like a lot of different punk rock, and most of it matches my black-rimmed glasses and slicked hair very well, thank-you-very-much. But, outside of soulful and beardy melodic punk, I’ve always been twisting my hands deeper and deeper in hardcore. There’s something purifying in the minimalism– rock ‘n roll taken to the absolute most basic and primal. When I found Tragedy, I found a bridge between melody and aggression. Whether you like the genre or not, you can hear the exceptionalism clearly across Tragedy’s body of work. They managed to take cues from genres that, almost by design, tend to sound largely the same, and then push them into new territory. Tragedy innovates. Tragedy crushes. Tragedy are the top of the game.
There was no question in my mind then, that when I saw the Portland crust legends had a show on the horizon, I had to go. It was Tragedy, after all, and after almost two years of keeping my ear to the ground, I finally had a chance to see punk rock’s most mysterious group. Further fueling my excitement, I saw it was going to be at the Know.
Now, that might not mean much to a lot of you, but if you’ve been to the Know, and know the rabidness of Tragedy’s fanbase, you know that this is a special show. The Know is tiny. It’s a bar with a small stage in a connecting room with a capacity of maybe a hundred people. What it lacks in size it makes up for in authenticity. It’s a true punk bar, with no affectations of hipness. Shows happen there just about every night of the week. The drinks are reasonably priced, as are the cover charges. The Know is good people.
So, it made sense to get their early– really early– just to be sure it would happen. We calmly sat and chatted as people filtered and by eight the place was starting to be decently filled. Knowing smiles flashed between strangers in vests as they drank Rainier and talked shit about the work week.
I got on the floor early enough to see the first band set up their banner. This was Hangmen Also Die, a local power trio that tread in the waters of D-Beat, hardcore, and crust. They took the stage and played a short set (my understanding was that they were a relatively recently formed band) made up of incredibly fast songs. Both drummer (a dude with white dreads that looked like one of the albino twins from the second Matrix movie) and bassist screamed, one doing higher, piercing vocals and the other doing wild-faced roars. The music itself was simple, the guitarist mostly played fast-as-hell chord progressions; the visuals of fingers forming those old and holy shapes gave me a sense of punk rock ancestry, a reminder that no matter how heavy or brutal you are, if you’re playing punk rock, you owe a little debt to the Ramones. They had energy to spare and came and went exactly as an opener should– leaving you wanting more.
Next up was Gasmask Terror, a French crust band with a lot of passion. The lead vocalist wasn’t hindered by any instrument and therefore was able to focus a lot of energy into his performance. The fretwork was superb, with lots of sweet, almost classically rock ‘n roll solos. Bends and hammer-ons, up and down the fretboard as the band blasted through a strong and angry setlist. As a francophile, I was stoked to see French punk rock representin’. I thanked the guitarist for playing, satisfying my need to know they were really French. He couldn’t have made me happier when he responded: It wahz a pleajzure, dude. I ended up buying a shirt.
The Know ends shows pretty strictly at eleven, which is kind of a blessing if you ever feel like bands are playing too long of sets and that just once it’d be nice to get some sleep before you work. There were only three bands on the bill, and everyone knew it was the Big One up next. Bathroom breaks were taken, beers were bought. I’ve never seen more people crowded into the Know’s venue space before. Tragedy took their time setting up as the audience stood expectantly, anticipating.
I instantly recognized the first song from its intense and melodic riff. It was the closest thing Tragedy has to a hit single– one of those songs that transcend the dissonance and rough edges of a genre and worm their way into the ears of the not-yet-believers. It was “The Day After,” and I knew all of this because my very not crusty girlfriend recognized it immediately. There were shouts and headbanging and there I was, packed tight in the crowd watching a cult band command the room. For not playing in a long while, they sounded tight as ever, loud as ever, squeezing the best sound I’ve heard out of the Know’s small space.
Todd Burdette didn’t scream so much as expel venom, like every word was another drop of poison and his music was his body rejecting it, one word at a time. A small but intimate mosh pit broke out over the course of the set, a rarity at the Know, as it is usually a more beer-in-hand crowd. But, that’s what Tragedy brings out in their audience.
The music was relentlessly heavy, and I felt the joy in unironically being able to flash metal hands for the first time. They finished up six minutes before eleven and left the stage. There was no encore. No flash, no bullshit, no proselytizing, no merch, no stage gimmicks; they played their music and soon they were with the rest of us; chatting and smiling, shaking hands and drinking beer.
Seeing Tragedy is seeing the pinnacle of a genre. There’s something magical about seeing a band at the top of their game. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few bands like that. There was Against Me! and Bomb the Music Industry!, the Taxpayers and Hot Water Music, and now there is Tragedy. There’s a whole lot of different sounds possible at the fretting hand of rebellious and independent rock music, but when a band nails it, no matter how they nail it, it’s the same catharsis. This particular brand is the radiation scarred and limbless, downtrodden outcasts of a deserted world. They’re the most extreme version of ourselves, our darkest moments painted in the blackest black. And we wander as they wander; crushing chords and dark melodies dancing between our ears.