By DUBRAY KINNEY and WILLIAM KIRSCH For The News-Letter
The fourth annual Unregistered Nurse Festival (U+NFest), a two-day event featuring a variety of punk and hardcore bands from Baltimore and across the country, rocked the Ottobar this weekend.
The first night featured headliners Screaming Females and Priests, while the second night ended with the final show for Baltimore’s own Roomrunner and Sheer Mag out of Philadelphia.
As a smaller, standing-only venue, the Ottobar served as an intimate space that was perfect for a punk show. Bands alternated between playing on a more traditional stage and playing down on the floor.
The distance between the band and the audience varied widely from set to set. Often members of a given band would reach out into the audience or even fully immerse themselves into a headbanging crowd.
The crowd also proved to be an eccentric mix. Aesthetically, there was a main divide between the college kids in Keds and more stereotypical punks in studded leather vests with patches of their favorite bands.
The wide range of ages among the audience members gives credence to the fact that the Baltimore art scene remains one of the most diverse, not only racially but also in the ages and backgrounds of those who attend local shows. The acts themselves were also diverse in style and age.
The headliners drew the largest crowds of the weekend. Screaming Females, a three-piece band from N.J., brought a startling dichotomy to the stage. The band’s lead singer and guitarist, Marissa Paternoster, conveyed a shy tone as she spoke in-between songs, yet her booming voice and dirty guitar solos peppered throughout their set entranced the audience.
Drawing from their February LP, Rose Mountain, they brought a sound that fell somewhere in between basement punk rock and the better parts of late-90s alt-rock.
Although there wasn’t much moshing, there was definitely a great amount of emotion displayed during the set as the audience nodded their heads in unison to the licks of the guitar.
Priests, a D.C. punk band, hypnotized the crowd with their pounding beats, fast guitar riffs and the stirring vocals of frontwoman Katie Alice Greer. They played songs from their latest EP, Bodies & Control & Money & Power.
Greer didn’t censor herself and even called out another woman who danced much more sensually when Pure Disgust was on stage.
Priests’s music had a decidedly political and reactionary tinge to them, including a new song that was formerly titled “Donald Trump,” but was now untitled in the wake of Trump’s more recent comments.
“Sort of organically our songs sound like whatever we’re into in the moment,” Greer said. “We’ve never been a genre-specific band. It’s hard for me to hide my emotions, so I feel like they always come through.”
To end the festival, Baltimore’s own Roomrunner, fronted by Denny Bowen on guitar and vocals, Jeff Byers on guitar, Dan Frome on bass and Bret Lanahan on drums, graced the Ottobar with their final show as a group (or so they claimed).
The local indie noise connoisseurs brought an energy founded in abandon, one which led the authors to pitch themselves into the now quite large mosh pit. Throughout the set the crowd joined each distortion-laden song as a screaming chorus and gave thanks in gyrating rapture.
Each musician was tightly focused; Lanahan silently moved his lips with each change in the beat and Byers and Frome banged their heads to Byers’s dry and calm croon. Roomrunner was the highlight of the night from the first song to the encore and Lanahan’s grateful trust fall into the welcoming crowd.
The festival’s lineup was diverse throughout the weekend, kicking off with Snail Mail, the stage name for Baltimore teenager Lindsey Jordan, who releases her lo-fi pop tunes on Bandcamp. She was followed by Post-Pink, a local four-member group who got the crowd’s heads nodding with their frantic guitar riffs and almost tribal drumming.
Honey Radar, a five-member group, was one of the more eccentric acts to play during the festival. The band harnessed the feedback and fuzz of their instruments for a cacophony of sounds, and the band’s two guitarists clashed their guitars together in a sword fight.
Baltimore local Eva Moolchan, known as Sneaks, pulled off a really catchy post-punk sound that elicited smiles and a unified head nod as she played. Though the same drumbeat was used for the majority of the set — either accelerated or slowed down for the different songs — she managed to win over the crowd with her steady bassline and hypnotic songs.
“Using the drum machine was situational,” Moolchan said following her set. “I wanted to make music but wanted to make it fast... That required me doing it alone. One day I was in my dad’s basement toying around with stuff and I found his drum machine and I borrowed it.”
Coming off the heels of the June release of their critically acclaimed album Cemetary Highrise Slum, Philadelphia shoegaze band Creepoid put on a show that felt tonally very different. Nevertheless they brought the heat with a wall of sound that hammered the room.
Barreracudas, an Atlanta-based rock-and-roll band, followed with playful banter between the vocalist and the bassist. The vocalist also reached for an audience member’s foot during their performance of one of their songs aptly named “Feet.”
Next up was Baltimore’s Wing Dam, who brought a shoegaze-ish quality with vocals that made the band reminiscent of a heavier Beach House.
Washington, D.C. band Pure Disgust epitomized their name, abruptly launching into 20 minutes of no-nonsense hardcore punk. Fists drove to the air and audience members raced from one side of the designated pit area to the other in a clash of bodies.
The second day of the festival opened with local band Pellars, who brought an ethereal and darkly pop tempo, richly combining lead singer Nick Hope’s cavernous yet thin and echoing vocals, Joseph Weeks’s church organ synths and Gunnar Isbert’s throaty bass guitar.
Richmond, Va.’s all-female punk ensemble Christi cracked the calm in the bar with aggressive riffs. Their raspy choruses and abrupt light chords were reminiscent of some of the great proto- and early-punk bands. The lead guitarist broke it down beautifully, picking out some solid solos over the steady beat several times.
The first band to play on the actual stage that day, D.C. outfit Loud Boyz, got up and immediately started to thrash through their set. The intricately tattooed drummer counting off the time in between songs acted as the only respite from the tidal wave of distortion and general shredding unleashed onto the crowd.
Don’t take this relentless energy as a bad thing; in fact, it was awesome, and any fans of Trash Talk, or really any contemporary punk band, should definitely check out the Loud Boyz. Their music was akin to New York-style hardcore punk with a dose of long hair and melody and without the threat of gang violence or the influence of pervasive poverty.
Red Death took the stage next and, much like the Loud Boyz, they definitely were not messing around. This D.C. group, which walks the fine line between metal and hardcore punk, played their set on the floor and happily made it shake as if there was an earthquake concentrated under the bar.
The band’s grimacing and snarling lead singer spat lyrics into the crowd with true hardcore malice.
Baltimore’s own Expert Alterations also performed as a jangling pseudo-pop trio whose simple and significantly less aggressive style moved away from thrash and onto something far more like post-punk. The lead singer and guitarist stood with the microphone in line with his torso and pitched and shook modestly with his eyes closed. A modest band with a solid performance, the frontman finished a solo and quickly commented on his dislike of them.
That, however, did not strip it of any musicianship, nor did the fairly reserved stage performances of the band’s three members take away anything from their general ability. Expert Alterations was far from the most intense or aggressive band there, but they may have been one of the most interesting.
Two Baltimore hardcore groups, Big Mouth and Angie Du$t, played a collaborative set on the floor; Angie Du$t, cheekily named after Big Mouth’s lead singer Angela Swiecicki, launched without hesitation into a monster set. The crowd started pulsing and writhing in a surging semicircle around the small cluster of amplifiers and musicians.
The divide between band and audience disappeared when Swiecicki inserted herself into the crowd and passed the microphone to fans. A memorable moment in the act was their cover of Agent Orange’s surf-punk classic “Bloodstains.” When the guitarist chopped out the first few chords, the tight pit at the center of the crowd exploded into a screaming chorus.
Big Eyes from New York and Blank Spell from Philadelphia brought a harder rock sound to the stage. The former’s stage performance was a little too reserved and lacked some of the energy of the previous bands. That being said, the group’s general musicianship was great.
Much was the same with Blank Spell, who returned to the floor for their set. Their sound was similar to that of Red Death, sort of scream-punk, and the crowd was certainly into it.
The U+N Fest is organized by Unregistered Nurse Bookings, a group that books and promotes gigs for punk and garage rock bands at Baltimore venues.