Ian MacKaye does the unexpected with The Evens

The scene was quite strange as I walked into Rangos Ballroom on Friday night: a baritone guitar and a minimal drum set and two lamps made from microphone stands on either side of the stage. This was definitely not the Ian MacKaye I had expected to see.

You see, 25 years ago, MacKaye, a Washington D.C., native, fronted one of the first hardcore punk bands, Minor Threat. Minor Threat went on to become one of the more signifigant punk groups: Everyone from Sublime to Rancid cites their influence. After Minor Threat disbanded, MacKaye formed another punk group, Fugazi, which also became famous on the punk scene, selling several gold records along the way. So naturally, when The Evens, MacKaye’s next project, came out in 2005 after Fugazi amicably disbanded, more lightning-fast, crunchy punk tunes were expected — so were screaming, thrashing, and yeah, some mosh-pitting. Alas, The Evens are far, far from this expectation. Nevertheless, The Evens are a pleasant surprise: Compositionally, they are a two-person indie rock-influenced group. Lyrically, they are progressive, forward-thinking intellectuals, and, with a quite obviously experienced MacKaye as the band’s figurehead, they are engaging, entertaining, and exciting performers.

With the audience of hipsters and punks, the high-heeled sitting eagerly by the foot of the stage, the group launched into “Shelter Two,” an interesting bridge between the old and the new. With snappy brushwork from drummer Amy Farina and subtle, yet on-edge guitar melodies from MacKaye beckoning early Broken Social Scene material, the boyfriend-girlfriend duo sang with the same ambition that has made MacKaye so respected for the past 25 years: “We keep climbing but we never find the top/It’s all downhill from here.”
It was this balance of old political and social commentary and a newfound sense of melody, technical prowess, and compositional integrity that made The Evens so special. From songs written in 7/8 to funky, riff-oriented grooves, to the shuffle and swagger of “Crude Bomb,” MacKaye and Farina always had a fabulous blend of witty and accessible music and intelligent, well-versed lyrics. In the opening section of the on-edge “Mt. Pleasant,” MacKaye encouraged the crowd to participate in chanting the song’s refrain, “The police will not be excused/The police will not behave,” which the crowd did with much enthusiasm. MacKaye’s commentary was continuous throughout the set: “Stay engaged, and stay involved,” MacKaye later cautioned. “The government is going to leave a big mess [after the war in Iraq], and we have got to clean it up.” When MacKaye asked if there were any apathetics in the crowd, it came as no surprise that several kids cheered. MacKaye warned, “The apathetic party is the biggest party out there; bigger than the Democrats. You’re the ones calling the shots.”

Along with the moments of activism and gravity came silly fun and playful interaction between artist and audienc. (MacKaye called this symbiotic relationship a “punk concept.”) At the beginning of “Sara Lee,” MacKaye and the audience whistled along with glee, which quickly evolved into clicking and clucking (much to MacKaye’s delight). The song itself, seemingly inspired by Wilco’s “Radio Cure,” was packed with a mallet-based drum pattern, eerie guitar chords, and most impressively, a rich vocal melody from MacKaye, who, for the past 25 years, has rarely sung on key.

And as the couple swayed through the tune, you couldn’t help but smile, knowing that as far as MacKaye has come, he’s still having a great time, and still playing with the same passion and intensity that he had 25 years ago, even if it is through whistling and on-key singing.

Whether you’re an Ian MacKaye fanatic or not, The Evens are definitely a deviation from his other musical projects. “Why keep doing the same thing for your whole career?” MacKaye said after the show. “I wanted to do something new, and I did it.” Just when you think that The Evens are another musical framework for MacKaye to express his own political views, Farina says, “Everything Ian says in his songs I believe, and everything I sing, he believes.” Although it is somewhat of a bumpy transition from hardcore to punk to indie, MacKaye is still as passionate and as driven as ever, and The Evens are just as rockin’, just as awesome, as anything MacKaye has ever done.