Full circle moments were ominous and abundant last Friday night.
The parking lot of The Observatory was quiet when I arrived to the sold-out Distillers reunion concert. It was hard to not be nostalgic tracing the same steps alone that I made as kid, only this time I’m sipping sparkling water instead of chugging 40s as I walk briskly toward the sold out show.
Screams resonated throughout the club as my friends and I stood in the beer line reminiscing about impactful Distillers concerts of the early aughts. Memories of parking lots, The Glass House, and House of Blues served as portals to thinking about freedom and youth. Nine PM on the dot seemed too early for a headlining band, but the minute Andy “Outbreak” Granelli’s iconic rapid fire sixteenth note snare roll hit the sound system enshrined in feedback it was evident that the moment so many of us had been waiting for had arrived early, and with a vengeance.
I lost control of my body. Feet pulling me before my mind could catch up, I ran to the floor without a drink, pulled by something within me and the music, like some ocean creature following the tide of the nearly full Scorpio moon. Through the crowd, down the stairs, jumping into the same pit I grew up in, the fucked-up teenager that needed The Distillers music to stay alive took over. At 32, this year is one of the hardest I’ve experienced. Reflecting on The Distillers soundtrack of grit and poetic survival in the face of girlhood trauma and violence with a crowd of strangers doing the same became one of the most powerful nights of my life.
Opening with “I Am A Revenant” was a bold move. Everyone in the crowd completely lost their shit. People cried. Like prophets of their own allegory, Brody Dalle, Andy Granelli, Tony Bevilacqua, and Ryan Sinn rose up from the dead and became the living, reclaiming their stolen breath along with their fans in an incredible moment of shock, rage, and collective awakening.
When I found The Distillers in 2001, they revolutionized my entire life. Sing Sing Death House helped me become tough while maintaining an internal tenderness fueled simultaneously by self-hatred and hope. I got a mohawk. I realized studying history was punk. I learned to scream instead of cry. I finally knew I wasn’t suffering from so many things in isolation. My best friend Sara and I would blast The Distillers every day after school, sing the lyrics to each other, tagging them all over Garden Grove in OCTA bus books and Wendy’s bathrooms. The band became our religion after we decided to turn our backs on a God our teenage hearts could never reconcile with. If Jesus wouldn’t love us for who we were, Brody would commiserate with us about the shit we’d lived through, who we had been, and who we never wanted to be. Like so many others at the show on Friday, through The Distillers music I became a revenant too.
The mood of the show was intense. Aside from people’s excitement, there was a quiet, penetrating wonder. Like seeing a fucking ghost. People seemed suspended in disbelief between songs, vacillating between cheers and awe, pitting and screaming. Stagedivers flew, someone got their blonde weave ripped out and it made its way around the floor the entire night never returning to its rightful owner.
The quartet blasted through songs from their entire catalog. They managed to keep the playfulness, power, and raw emotion central to their debut self-titled record and Sing Sing Death House while maintaining their iconic brooding qualities. It felt like a celebration, fans singing every word and even clapping with psychic anticipation during the few times Granelli wavered a bit behind the band. It was powerful to witness this, as someone settling into my 30s attempting to keep up with some shit too. The band was incredible for having not played a show in over a decade. Sinn’s bass playing was as dark and bouncy as ever, carving out solid ground for Bevilacqua and Dalle’s intense and emotional cacophony of feedback, and Granelli’s intentional fills that sounded as amazing as they did in 2004.
In a set of all hits there were some stand out moments. Their last album together, Coral Fang, always felt like the musical incarnation of the death card in tarot: a total reinvention heavy with endings, a dissonant shedding of an outmoded form, ripe for an unmapped ascension. Their only major label release, Coral Fang was a collection of music for growing into. Watching them perform songs like “For Tonight You’re Only Here To Know,” “Love Is Paranoid,” “Hall of Mirrors,” “Drain the Blood,” and “The Hunger,” as fully grown adults was incredible.
Some asshole kept yelling for them to play their “Spiderman” cover, like we get it dude you had Napster just like every other guy in 2003. And for the record, if they’re gonna play a cover it’s gonna be “Warriors.”
When they played “I Understand” hordes of women lost their shit. Starting out with a mimicking of a cat call, the song is 2 minutes of pure fucking rage at living on the edge as a teen girl misfit with a junkie heart living with the memories of regret. As the pit churned filled mostly with grown women (with the exception of a few relentless pit bros), I felt like I had new clarity screaming “Now I really understand.”
In a rare moment of dialogue, Dalle stood center stage surrounded by fog and blue lights, speaking directly to the crowd. “This is for anyone who’s really struggling right now [and] feels all alone,” she said from behind a swoop of jet black bangs. The crowd went quiet. “Just have faith,” she said, affirming that everyone had the power to overcome. Dalle has never been much of a talker between songs, so when she speaks, fans hang on every word.
What ensued was the most brutal rendition of “Sick Of It All” I’ve ever witnessed. Faster, heavier, more intense and more urgent than when the song was new. Unable to fully center myself I gave my body over to the power of the crowd, fully on my own for the first time. Those opening buzzsaw chords dug into me, hurling me into collective catharsis with other adults struggling in the moment for physical stability, who as kids thought life was a scam, whose bodies rotted at 13, who came from wasted land, who identified with ambiguous references of overcoming fucked up realities and yearning for freedom.
This is the story of so many women and queers who were present at the Observatory Friday night which is probably why it felt like more like a ritual gathering than a show. Distillers shows have never explicitly been feminist spaces, but the crowd was full of us as it always has been. The queers. The freaks. Dykes and unloveable girls. Trans and genderqueer babes who didn’t have the language to articulate anything other than rage and awkward love for Brody and Casper. Punk show anonymity became a space for radical reinvention. We needed to slam into each other enraged, sweaty, and screaming. Each fangirl moment and body hit the closest thing to intimacy many of us could handle. For many of us, that violent space was one of the only times we had autonomy over our bodies being touched by others, forging love and communion while screaming along with lyrics that enabled us to feel seen while being engaged with danger on our own terms for our own survival.
Emotions were running high by the time the band reached the last song of their set “Blackest Years,” a deep cut and fan favorite from their self-titled record that invokes political turmoil and personal narratives of departure. As I stood on the side of the pit I remembered standing in the same place watching the same song as a 16-year-old running from wounds in what I imagined would be the darkest days of my life.
“When the ocean swells that day I’ll get on my ship and I’ll sail away.”
Some yoked bro kept elbowing me unnecessarily. Swept up in the spirit of the pit I hurled him away from my body with every ounce of my being. Moments later I was knocked on the floor. I got up and moved to the side of the pit just as the breakdown of the song started, Dalle screaming about going home, and I started to cry. The pit of the Observatory (and its predecessor The Galaxy Theatre) has felt like home for me for so many years. As a teen I learned to take out my hard earned aggression there, I met some of my best friends, enemies, and my first girl crush there, I got in fist fights and political debates, played shows, and even got my mom to see me perform for the first time there. Sometimes getting knocked on your ass brings life into focus and reminds you that you’re alive.
The Distillers are so important to so many because they speak so eloquently about survival and liberation in coded ways, clear to the people who need the messages. They never push into confession, resonating through words and grating distortion, pounding drums, and playful darkness. Reveling in space rather than definite articulations.
Baptized in the sweat, spit, and tears of myself and strangers, I realized fully what it meant to have grown up with The Distillers music in that full circle moment. Staying alive is defiant enough. Winning isn’t for the wicked. Assholes and everything they stand for, in all their callous indignation and lack of awareness, will never go extinct. With our own language and anthems,
revenants thrive underground.
1. I Am A Revenant
2. Coral Fang
3. LA Girl
4. Seneca Falls
5. Die On A Rope
6. Hall Of Mirrors
7. Sick Of It All
8. The Gallow is God
9. Oh Serena
10. I Understand
11. Dismantle Me
12. The Hunger
13. Love Is Paranoid
14. For Tonight You’re Only Here To Know
15. Drain The Blood
16. City Of Angels
17. The Young Crazed Peeling
18. The Blackest Years