The State Theatre was open for business on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon, and it smelled just like a baseball game. Troughs of roasting wienies crowded the lobby colonnade, and warm domestic splashed as fans jostled amicably in line. The mealy stench of Corn Nuts — familiar to patrons of ballparks everywhere — wafted through the hot dog steam, and roving gangs of suburban teens mingled with weary security guards or the occasional pasty denizen of Detroit’s nocturnal rock scene. 89X’s annual Birthday Bash had moved downtown this year, and the State had teamed with the revered Fox Theatre (and an adjoining patch of asphalt) to bring the boffo modern rock event to the easily pleased masses. It didn’t quite reach home run distance — logistical growing pains and a spotty lineup prevented that. But the Birthday Bash was still a curious intersection of big-label acts, Detroit music flavor, blind adolescent fervor and the trashy commonalities of today’s street festival.
The Hard Lessons were thrilled with the youthful throng clogging the Woodward Avenue parking lot stage for the trio’s fest-opening set. The kids seemed thrilled too — later, standing with the Hard Lessons in the velvety Fox foyer, a steady stream of saucer-eyed preteens clamored for their autographs.
With all the recent touring for their fantastic New Line debut, the Sights’. Bobby Emmett probably understands that adulation. Or at least his girlfriend does — she noticed a few fawning lovelies gazing at Emmett as he tuned his Hammond on the State stage. By set time the theater was more than half full, and the crowd was clearly enjoying the trio’s strutty, summery roll. But there was that question too, and more than a few times. "These guys are great! Who are they?"
Crossing into the Sights set was the Kinks ’n’ Cream revivalism of Danish rookies the Blue Van. The quartet looked perfect in the long sight lines down to the Fox’s stage — their vintage gear, rich organ tones and slender mod stage wear made the darkness of the theater ripple with classic rock imagery. And the seated fans were receptive to vocalist Steffen Westmark’s good-natured chatter. But the real action was at the side-door junction, where crowds from the fest’s three stages met. Hyper teens, off-duty strippers, weary parents and random festgoers streamed through the door. The latter group made its presence felt by stopping immediately inside the Fox’s doors and looking around like bewildered spelunkers from the suburbs. Blue Van kept rocking, and probably made an impression. But if the combo had offered, say, elephant ears as a giveaway, or another festival foodstuff of questionable gastronomy, that line might have quit moving for a second.
Why was everyone in such a rush? Getting in line early certainly became a necessity as increasing Birthday Bash attendance restricted free movement between the theaters and the outdoor stage. This trend forced many to miss headliners like Social Distortion and Keane.
But there was also a pervasive sense of people moving for moving’s sake, as if the next stop was only important as the next one after that. Granted, A Static Lullaby’s interchangeably cartoonish screamo roar didn’t warrant more than a few minutes of anyone’s time, and Louis XIV’s stultifying mess of cockiness and glam thievery was only a bone thrown to the happy-with-plastic Killers fans. People should’ve been running from those place-holding cash cows. But amid these corporate feeder acts were some real gems, the kind that fans should’ve stopped moving for and enjoyed. Brendan Benson continued his spectacular re-emergence with a solid set of silky power pop, and Tegan & Sara’s fragile harmonies were helped along by some true fan support. (Canadians in the house?) Regardless, many were only walking with eyes on what was next.
The Birthday Bash’s great migration is a sign of many Americans’ superficial relationship with pop music, and even the bright-side shallowness of contemporary music itself. But both those indictments are larger than 89X or one Memorial Day concert in downtown Detroit, and potentially very serious. That’s why it’s better to close with the spiky, rollicking fart joke that is Sum 41. The bratty Canadian combo is superficial, shallow, callow and crass, and its music is criminally derivative while remaining relentlessly energetic. In other words, Sum 41 is the perfect summertime radio fest band, and the group proved it here. A roiling, hollering crowd went absolutely bananas for the Sums’ 2001 Beastie Boys-Green Day mash-up "Fat Lip," which is still the band’s best song. Sum’s trashy pop-punk channels familiarity and hyperactivity liberally, and everyone’s happy for a minute or two. At the Birthday Bash, fans loved it because it was bright and stupid and catchy, and they stopped moving. Of course, they were also mired in the massive lines forming for the headlining shows, but still.Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]