The Last Back To School Jam Is A Fitting Funeral For A Killer Fest
For east coast fans of punk and hardcore, the Back To School Jam is like Christmas, the Fourth Of July, and Comic-Con rolled into one. At this annual festival, both classic and contemporary bands come together to bathe in the adoration and flying teeth of their fans. Now, the tradition is finally coming to a close: 2019’s Back To School Jam is the last one ever.
Since I’ll never get this chance again, I decided to head out to Jersey City and take in the spectacle. Here’s my experience…
It’s a special day: the punks and goths of Jersey City and surrounding areas — whether it be New York, Pennsylvania, or…well, elsewhere in Jersey — are out in the sun for once, enduring the heat in their all-black clothing. Whether prowling the streets or vaping on benches, they’ve gathered here since 11am this morning for one reason: to lose their shit at the final Back To School Jam.
Entering Jersey City’s White Eagle Hall is similar to being swallowed by a black vortex reverberating with disruptive rhythms and staticky roars. Once past security and through the doors, the sunny daytime world is gone: The ballroom is totally dark, save the colorful stage lights bathing the band — right now, Abuse of Power — in green and yellow light. The crowd stretches over the whole floor, 90% arm-crossers and observers, 10% pit, the Atlanta quintet’s massive riffs shaking the room like a giant’s heartbeat.
My friend and I easily weave through the sea of tattooed hardcore kids (kids meaning mostly adults) to watch the source of the madness. Frontman Kaleb Perdue howls incoherent lamentations; the few dedicated fans dancing express their sympathy through frantic physical exertion. Though the pit only has a few members at this point, that doesn’t stop it from getting rowdy — fans climb on one another’s shoulders to scream lyrics back at the passionate vocalist.
Leeds’s Higher Power follow with a similar rage. The infectious riffs of Burning pull more spinkickers and windmillers into the mix. The songs pour into each other with catchy guitars and high-pitched vocals; the movement rarely relents. The show is now officially a free-for-all.
Revitalized by iced coffee and a stroll around town, I’m ready for Year of the Knife’s patented mayhem. The no-nonsense Delaware five-piece explode with some of the noisiest songs yet, the vicious Fatal and Sick Statistic inciting a messy yet admirably synchronized whirl of two steppers and headbangers. Witnessing their brand of jaunty metal-enmeshed hardcore reminds me why they earned their #10 spot on our 50 best American hardcore bands list.
Heavy-hitters King Nine take the stage next; the Long Island-based quintet open with the frontman Dan Seely demanding everyone to step closer — a classic hardcore band move. It’s both this forceful attitude and the band’s ceaseless roars and impeccable shredding that cracks the rigid infrastructure of the whole audience. Arm-crossers loosen up; head-boppers start to move their whole bodies.
In the pit, the mic is like holy grail as Dan holds it down for the fans to fight over. The appreciation for hardcore music is at its peak, especially when Dan exclaims in between songs: “A lot of bands don’t wanna be hardcore bands; I don’t know about you, but that don’t jive with me, baby.” Right on.
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I catch the last few songs of Wisdom In Chains’ brilliantly extravagant punk frenzy and then wait eternity for Fiddlehead to set up. Finally, the emo supergroup — consisting of Have Heart’s Pat Flynn and Shawn Costa, Basement’s Alex Henery, Youth Funeral’s Casey Nealon, and Big Contest’s Alex Dow — bring something less aggressive and more vulnerable to this mass of emotional people. The pit is temporarily occupied with a regular mosh (don’t get me wrong — people go wild — it’s just not as much of a shitshow).
The band starts by diving straight into their beautiful debut record Springtime And Blind, playing the first three tracks — Spousal Loss, Poem You, USMA. The insane energy previously used for swinging fists now takes form in pushes, fistpumping, and, most of all, crowdsurfing. fans repeatedly eat shit, one after one hauling themselves onto the stage beside Pat and jumping into the throng of weak moshers who quickly skedaddle out of the way. Of course, plenty of people — including this reporter — instead receive a foot directly to the face.
Culture Abuse follow, and quickly prove themselves as inspiring and hedonistic as they appear. The smell of weed immediately fills the room, and vocalist David Kelling unapologetically exclaims, “I got too high; I can’t remember the words.” Though their brand of punk rock falls into a more surf-is category aside bands like FIDLAR or SWMRS, they boom with the same energy as the hardcore bands, rallying carefree adolescents into circle pits and encouraging ardent crowdsurfers.
A quick but totally necessary stop at Dunkin’ Donuts prepares me for the wrath of Most Precious Blood. The genre-definers throw a refreshing dose of political punk in everyone’s faces, and we accept it with overflowing invigoration. Shark Ethic turns the room into a pandemonium with its rapid tempo and fascinatingly tragic lyrics: “The bearer of burden returns with inability to cope with separation anxiety/It remains to torture me until I breathe and don’t scream/It stays to chip away at me until I sleep and don’t dream/Roots from my feet sprung like barbed wire and serpents’s tongue.”. However, it’s the chant of “Master your fear!” that gets the crowd to collectively strain their lungs.
Things only get more violent when up-and-coming hardcore five-piece Vein go on. The whole Jam becomes a celebration to their debut LP Errorzone; the band’s sound is entirely their own, and everyone loves it. The whole room falls into a trance as Vein delve into their uniquely distorted form of havoc, unleashing absolute anarchy with tracks like Virus://Vibrance and Old Data in a Dead Machine. Both the band and the fans are completely possessed by the rhythm; the scene looks ritualistic, like some kind of sweaty exorcism.
Next, New Jersey legends Folly erupt with hardcore-ska-punk delight. The crowd roars during ruthless hits like Repeat, I Repeat, Repeat and Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Doing the Best He Can. Shrills and catchy skanking beats mix with volcanic guitar riffs to rattle the venue, demanding movement from the worn-out bodies of the audience. The pit is brimming with exhilaration. When their explosive set finishes up, a handful of people stumble outside, already done with the night. I’m tempted, but me and mine decide to hang around till the bitter end.
Speaking of which, it’s Martyr A.D.’s job to close out the final Back To School Jam, and they don’t disappoint. The leftover two-steppers and bow-throwers show no signs of exhaustion, exhibiting a persistent energy that is now somehow stronger than ever. The Minnesotan metalcore gang mercilessly raise hell with staticky roars and thunderous breakdowns. American Hollow and Bring Out Your Dead force the audience to give one last push of energy, submitting to the metallic riffs and jumping on one another mindlessly. I’m wiped, but still find the last reserves to go all-out for these guys.
It’s the perfect ending to the long day — devoted hardcore lovers still entangled with one another, ears ringing and shirts soaked, detached from everything but the moment as they amble down the block.
R.I.P. Back To School Jam — I miss you already.
San Francisco punks Culture Abuse have decided “to no longer continue with this band” following allegations of sexual misconduct regarding frontman David Kelling.
Watch the video for Salem’s new single Destroy Me, taken from their upcoming self-titled debut EP.