The Promise Ring: Turner Hall Ballroom, 2/24/12

Sun Feb 26 2012

Confession of a bad Milwaukeean: I never saw The Promise Ring during its original run. I was in town, I was aware of the band, I was hanging out with people who went to Promise Ring shows. But I hated emo. I thought emo had arrived to kill off punk rock and make my lifestyle invalid. Never mind that Davey von Bohlen was writing lyrics that could’ve made me feel better during a very troubled time, describing my mindset far more accurately than punk ever could. Never mind that I was supposed to be this open-minded kid who went to Metalfest one weekend and Phish the next. Punk was sacred, and emo was sacrilege. Maybe emo did end up killing punk after all; I’m too far removed now to be the judge. But I do know that what kids call emo these days is a far cry from what Promise Ring cranked out on Friday night at Turner Hall. Of course, you’re getting into touchy semantics with emo no matter what; by the time of 2002’s Wood/Water, you could basically call Promise Ring and all its contemporaries “indie rock” and leave it at that. Consequently, when the band opened with “Size Of Your Life”, it didn’t sound dated or even old. There are plenty of bands nowadays playing music just like this, and most of the songs on Wood/Water could enter today’s “underground” as hits. Even so, the nostalgia was palpable and intoxicating; there was a feeling of giddy, resuscitated community, even if it was only for one night.

It was a little startling when the band played “A Picture Postcard” early on in the set and I got totally choked up. Sure, over the past decade or so I learned to like it, but it had to have seeped into my consciousness somehow back when I hated it for it to produce that reaction. It felt like a story plucked from the life I wished I had in the mid-90s. Now, fifteen years after it first appeared (and freed from the questionable production of 30° Everywhere), it is obviously one of the most perfect pop songs of the past two decades. Standing there, lost in the swarm of rapt fans (where were all the jaded hipsters?), I felt a missing piece of my own history puzzle clicking into place. Lucky thing too, since Davey announced (yet again) that they were never playing that song again…

For his part, von Bohlen was suffering vocally; his trademarked goofy between-song banter was raspy and quiet, but it was hardly noticeable when he sang; this band was never about perfection—it was about getting through. (Hard to believe they didn’t play “Living Around”, though!) If anything, overcoming the hoarseness was heroic, and the manic physical energy of his performance made us all feel a little younger. But the star of this show was drummer Dan Didier; as everyone knows, it doesn’t take much talent to play punk rock, and you don’t get the sense from Promise Ring (or Maritime, for that matter) records that Didier is some kind of powerhouse, but there in the cavernous ballroom he came off like Dave Grohl, except sensitive. His performance breathed new life into most of the songs, and in some cases virtually reinvented them. The celebratory set-closer “Get On The Floor” was the only point when he really took the spotlight, but at that point he’d more than earned it.

The icing on the cake was The Celebrated Workingman. Mark Waldoch has been experiencing vocal problems of his own recently, but following his band’s brief hiatus, he came out swinging for this opening set. The sound was muddy and we could barely hear him between songs, but his booming baritone commanded respect during the songs, mostly new material both unreleased and from last year’s excellent Content Content album. He may have been babying his throat in a few instances, but overall it was a triumphant return, particularly the surprise appearance of guitarist Nate McNichols, who had reportedly quit the band last fall. There’s no doubt that CWM proudly bears the Promise Ring heart-on-sleeve torch for Milwaukee, and Waldoch remarked that he was more excited than anyone to see TPR take the stage. It all added up to a night of pure musical joy; I’m just thankful that I shook off my hang-ups in plenty of time to experience it.

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