[PRE-GRUNGE] Different sorts of folks attend reunion shows. Those who delight in Schadenfreude eagerly await chances to compare hair and waistlines from the Class of 1980; some wish to rekindle past memories; latecomers attend curious as to what the original fuss was about. But one doesn’t expect an audience full of people who were largely unborn during a band’s heyday to show up—especially for a famously under-recorded Northwest troupe.
Napalm Beach, which disbanded in the late ’90s, for its part didn’t act like this was a reunion—no reminiscence-fueled patter or set-list hesitancies, and the blistering tightness borne of countless performances was wholly undimmed. Drummer Sam Henry (more famously of the Wipers) tore through beats with a fevered passion, absently twirling drumsticks with a careerist’s casual flair; a shirtless Dave Dillinger prowled the stage, playing bass with coiled menace; and the aural gravity of frontman Chris Newman—a slowly decaying pulsar of punk—couldn’t help but command attention.
Napalm Beach has earned its legend. Since 1980, back when black-clad hellions rarely name-checked Nirvana or the Pixies and quiet/loud band dynamics were considered creative differences, Newman, Henry and a Spinal Tap-worthy assembly line of bassists (14 before Dillinger) served as an undeniable influence upon two generations of unhinged garage rock. The question is whether or not grunge has meaning beyond CD Warehouse section cards. Thunderous, unreconstructed blues riffs exist elsewhere, of course, as does the touch of enlightened fragility through balls-out caterwauling. And the genre doesn’t hold the trademark for expansive rackets seemingly beyond the sonic capabilities of a trio.
But if there’s something to be said for grunge—possibly the reason behind Napalm Beach’s continuing powers—it’s the organic interplay of all this within a single tune. There’s an undeniably cinematic quality—disparate elements dissolving into one, an obvious devotion to songcraft within a culture that prizes shouty nihilism. Longtime fans swear no one resembled Napalm Beach 25 years ago, but what they remember most is the attitude: As one beardy old boy recalls, “[They] took a loser’s hand and rolled with it.”
None of this would much matter unless Napalm Beach could still rock the fucking house. And not to worry—there wasn’t a soul present who believed this to be Napalm’s last show. Perhaps we should consider them a living band who just happens to gig every few years, enduring till a new generation needs grunge itself explained. Someday this war’s gonna end.
Photo: Napalm Beach's Chris Newman, taken by Vivian Johnson.