To mewithoutYou: So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish (with towers on their back)

Eighteen years ago—nearly to the day—I purchased a copy of [A–>B] Life from the church camp bookstore. I had seen their name from lurking around the Tooth and Nail website, and had downloaded the monstrous track “Gentlemen,” so it felt like a pretty safe bet.

I hated it.

The songs shifted too unpredictably, the vocals were too abrasive. I sat with the lyric sheet in a friend’s trailer while they played euchre, and winced.

But amid the maelstrom of chaos, the lyrics shone like a beacon. There was a palpable rawness that I was drawn to, and it compelled me to muscle down the album, like bitter medicine. Dose by dose, I grew to appreciate it. Then suddenly, my two-year relationship fell apart, and it all snapped into place. I found my experience mirrored in the album in picture-perfect clarity. Even the acerbic sonics of the record reflected the bitterness of my emotional state.

Soon, it became my favorite record.

A few months later, I started dating a friend from that same church camp, who was herself a mewithoutYou fan. We discovered together that we had missed Catch For Us the Foxes a few months earlier. We each bought a copy, and that record became the vocabulary of our relationship. Another friend pointed out my own resemblance to lead singer Aaron Weiss in the video for “January 1979″—not the first time that happened—and the subtle reflection I saw in the band grew, filling in many of the blank spaces of a confused teenager’s identity (you can see the fulfillment of this identity crisis here).

My girlfriend and I found a show coming to Detroit (that full set is here) and made plans to attend. I wish I could wax poetic about how few people were there, but in all honestly I don’t remember. I was transfixed by the band’s energy: the guitarists bounced in place while Ricky Mazzotta beat the drums manically. Then Aaron’s energy was unlike any frontman I had ever seen: more that of a storyteller than a lead singer, twisting his body in time with an almost childish jubilance. Heartbreakingly, we had to leave early to get our friend home in time (we didn’t—she and my girlfriend were grounded for breaking curfew).

If I wasn’t obsessed already, I was then. I would see them three more times in the following year, which included one show in Kokomo, Indiana on the drive from Philadelphia to record Brother, Sister, where they played many of those songs—including “In a Sweater Poorly Knit”—for the first time. Through the years, many more shows followed, the band delivering every time (I even had Aaron record a greeting for my voicemail once).

Then this past Monday, I saw them for the last time in Kalamazoo, Michigan (I had hoped to attend one of the last two shows in Philly, but it’s far too close to the birth of my daughter). I had expected myself to be an absolute wreck. But the beauty of the night was powerful enough to overwhelm my grief.

Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, before the show (unfortunately the only photo I grabbed)

The show was in the beer garden of Bell’s Eccentric Cafe—an open-air venue with a pagoda-like stage and plenty of tree cover and flower gardens. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting setting to see them (there was also a set of train tracks behind the stage, which made “Carousels” especially apt—luckily the train only came between songs). As the crowd filled out, I saw a number of friends that I’ve met through the Southwestern Michigan/Northern Indiana DIY scene. I also saw the highest concentration of trans women with Christian tattoos, which seems appropriate, given the band’s unique cultural position.

WHY? played the opening set, which someone online described as “Sesame Street-esque.” I don’t want that to read as a dismissal, but the description makes sense. There was a playfulness to their set, performed by just a keyboardist/singer and a bassist, who had a rudimentary drum kit and drum machine in front of him. It reminded me of The Unicorns, or perhaps more accurately, the Unicorns offshoot Islands. They might have seemed like an odd match on paper, but their sort of whimsical impishness was a fine compliment to mewithoutYou’s own playful qualities, shown most clearly by it’s all crazy.

When mewithoutYou took the stage, an eager joy took over the crowd. As I mentioned, I’ve seen mewithoutYou several times. I’ve never felt as much camaraderie among a crowd as this night. I watched propped up against a tree, nursing a gnarly toothache, standing on a concrete block I had found to give myself a better view over the crowd (a security guard dissuaded me from climbing said tree when I asked—plus I didn’t want to invite the Biblical comparison).

They opened with “Red Cow” off of Pale Horses, and despite being one of their more recent—and wordier—songs, I heard the crowd around me singing (or shouting) along with every word. I can’t help but notice that fostering such an enduring interest in late-career songs is rare for most bands in this scene—many of whom still rely largely on the hits of their respective eras. On the other hand, mewithoutYou’s set list pulled from their seven-album career without preference.

Red Cow (Pale Horses)
Nice and Blue, Part 2 (Brother, Sister)
Disaster Tourism (Catch For Us the Foxes)
Watermelon Ascot (Pale Horses)
East Enders Wives (Ten Stories)
Julia (or, “Holy to the Lord” on the Bells of Horses) ([Untitled])
We Know Who Our Enemies Are ([A–>B] Life)
C-Minor (Brother, Sister)
Elephant at the Dock (Ten Stories)
Flee, Thou Matadors! ([Untitled])
Yellow Spider (Brother, Sister)
Torches Together (Catch For Us the Foxes)
January 1979 (Catch For Us the Foxes)
Tortoises All the Way Down ([Untitled])
Carousels (with different verses) (Catch For Us the Foxes)
Bullet to Binary ([A–>B] Life)
Nice And Blue ([A–>B] Life)
Paper Hanger (Catch For Us the Foxes)
Rainbow Signs (Pale Horses)
Allah x3 (it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright)

Encore:
King Beetle on a Coconute Estate (it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright)
9:27am, 7/29 ([Untitled])
In a Sweater Poorly Knit (Brother, Sister)

It’s worth noting that “January 1979,” “Sweater,” and “Julia” are the only three songs that have been played at every date on the farewell tour.

Maybe surprisingly, the crowd’s interest never wavered—even through a twenty-three-song set. The occasional moshpit would burst out, especially in the earlier songs, and Aaron would come offstage to meet the crowd at the barricade, thrashing along with them. On the softer songs, like “East Enders Wives” or “Yellow Spider,” the crowd would sing full-voiced with every word. Even deep cuts like “C-Minor” or “Tortoises All the Way Down” were met with as warm a reception as undeniable classics like “Torches Together.” The band weaved their way between songs with (seemingly) improvised interludes and slightly reimagined intros, which—along with their propensity to play a different set every night—had the audience’s rapt attention the whole night.

There were quite a few surprises—particularly the three songs they played off of [A–>B] Life. I was particularly emotional over “C-Minor,” “Carousels,” and “King Beetle,” all of which have had a profound impact on my worldview throughout the last two decades that I’ve been following the band—particularly the line, “we didn’t ask what it seemed like, we asked what it is,” which has been a guiding principle as I’ve navigated the murky waters of cultural doctrine to find God’s true nature.

It’s also worth mentioning that while I’ve never quite appreciated “Allah x3” in the context of it’s all crazy—especially after the stunning “King Beetle.” But, in the midst of hundreds of fans singing along under the stars on their farewell tour, it seems as appropriate a summation of mewithoutYou’s modus operandi as anything else they’ve done: an invocation to forgive the hurts done upon us as others forgive the hurts we’ve done to others, to see glory in even the smallest details around us, to look beyond the arbitrary lines drawn between those around us and see the Divine shining in each of them.

They are lessons that have guided my worldview for much of my adult life—and lessons I might not have learned had they not been wrapped up in a fiercely original punk band. The individuals involved may be setting the band aside, but the legacy of mewithoutYou will continue on for ages to come. If this had to be the last time I ever saw them, it was as fine a sendoff as anyone could have asked for.

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