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Recap: Tragedy at Le Poisson Rouge

Le Poisson Rouge is not a punk club. Not that it avoids heavier music entirely – the West Village venue’s upcoming events calendar features appearances by Rorschach and Converge, among others. But the club hosts a wide range of live performance, from indie shows (another one coming up: the Clean and Times New Viking) to poetry readings to contemporary classical music, and its owners don’t want it trashed and spray-painted into a hardcore dive. So, perhaps, it felt a little odd to see Tragedy last Saturday evening in a concert hall where the bouncers wore white shirts with neckties, or one with a VIP bottle-service section at the back of the room.

But think about it a little more, and it makes perfect sense. Tragedy have done well for themselves by crafting an aura of mystery. The Portland band maintains little to no internet presence while quietly self-releasing their records – four LPs over the past decade, with a smattering of singles to tide fans over. Six years have passed between their latest album Darker Days Ahead and the one before it; a few friends remarked that they had no idea it had even come out until they saw copies on the merch table in the foyer. They garner attention from highbrow metal magazines like Decibel; given their recent interest in the punk middleground, I wouldn’t be shocked to see them covered in Spin. And they also don’t play out very often – every tour announcement stirs up rumors that this one will be their last.

Tragedy appear tonight upstairs at Valentines with Born Low, Neutron Rats, and Maggot Brain. 17 New Scotland Avenue, Albany. 8:00 PM, $10.

Check out the rest of the review beneath the cut!

Combine all this with their renowned live presence – tight, focused, grim, constantly on-cue – and Tragedy shows become events. People travel to see Tragedy. People follow Tragedy around. Both times I’ve seen them in Albany, Valentines overflowed with punks I’d never seen before, kids who’d come from all over the Northeast to catch their set. This time, I ran into a friend from Philadelphia (where they’d played the night before) and Boston (where they would play the day after). Are Tragedy the crust punk Grateful Dead? That’s a stretch, but certainly the show had the air of a major happening, which was only enhanced by the oddball venue.

And, again, a lot of that has to with Tragedy’s stage presence. They display a true knack for playing what audiences want to hear. I listened to Darker Days Ahead before heading out, surprised by its downbeat tempos and sense of melancholy. Would crowds turn on to a set of slower numbers? I admit I went partly for people-watching, half-expecting to see a gaggle of aggro punk rockers boo or storm out during a set loaded with dirges. But the band mostly kept things upbeat. Fans typically regard 2002’s driving Vengeance as their high-water mark; Saturday’s set stuck to that formula, with new songs chosen carefully to keep it from dragging.

Not that I could tell their songs apart all that well, mind. Part of that stemmed from the fact that, live, Tragedy simply aren’t a very dynamic band. They play at ten constantly, with no breathers – a juggernaut, if you will. I recognized individual tunes mostly through singer/guitarist Todd Burdette’s growls between songs (“THANK-YOU-VERY-FUCKING-MUCH. ‘CLOSE-AT-HAND’ – ‘THE-GRIM-INFINITE.’”) or through repetition (they’ve closed with “Vengeance” every time I’ve seen them). Part of that, too, was due to the abysmal sound reinforcement at Le Poisson Rouge, which muffled the guitars beneath the bass and drums. Tragedy make full use of their two-guitar lineup, so the lousy mix sapped some of their energy.

And yet, weirdly, a low-energy Tragedy show turned out to be what I wanted. The audience comprised a mix of punks in full dress, hardcore kids, indie rockers – and a surprising number of ordinary-looking adults, bobbing their heads and pumping their fists while respectfully watching the band. One advantage of seeing Tragedy is that people go to see Tragedy, not to perform themselves. Perhaps the low-key crowd let the band relax as well. Burdette never strayed from his gruff stage-voice shtick, but he did break character enough to chat with the audience and talk up the opening bands. He and bassist/singer Billy Davis remained stone-faced throughout; off to stage right, though, I could see guitarist Yannick Lorrain smiling through the severity – a nice moment for a band that have taken it upon themselves to be the punk man-machine.

Forty minutes in. “LAST-TWO-SONGS. ‘CALL-TO-ARMS,’” Burdette barked. Tragedy plowed through it (another track from Vengeance, and a constant in their setlist) and the aforementioned closer before leaning their guitars against their amplifiers and leaving the stage in a cascading din of warbling, chorused feedback. No encores, despite the crowd breaking into a “Tra-ge-dy” chant. For a few minutes, it looked like they might relent. But then the house lights came up to scattered boos. It was all over before 9:30.

Was it a good show? Six years ago, when I first saw Tragedy, I would have said no. It would have been too sedate, too packed with people who didn’t “get it,” too… unpunk, I guess. Saturday night, though, was pretty much exactly what I wanted: quick, calm, well-played. Not everyone in the audience agreed: my companion walked out on the headliners halfway through, complaining about the bad sound and what he took to be a lackluster performance. I concur with him on the first point, of course, but not on the second. Tragedy may not be the most engaging band, and I’ve certainly seen them play better, but I enjoyed myself. As a punk show, perhaps it was a failure. As a pleasant evening out with friends, it was an undeniable success.

Openers: Sickoids, from Philadelphia, and New York’s Perdition both played fast, noisy d-beat punk that was marred by the same sound problems that would later dampen Tragedy’s set. Perdition’s guitarist in particular disappeared into hiss. From what I could see, though, both bands played tight, and Sickoids threw in a cover of “No Limbs” by Crucifix – a nice touch. Aesthetically, too, they fit well with the headliners. Boston Strangler played a tough style of hardcore inspired by Eighties Boston bands and Negative Approach, while singer Ban Reilly thoroughly aped Burdette’s stage presence. I stood too close to the stage for the first half of their set and caught an elbow to the chin. Comes with the territory; still, I retreated to the back of the room after that.

Photo by Nukkka Photography

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