When the World was Ready, Jawbox Returned

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  • “Did you just lie to your hero?” The target of my slight mischaracterization is of some debate, but yes, I wasn’t entirely accurate when I described driving from Cheyenne, Wyoming all the way out to Baltimore to see my favorite musician’s current band. This bulk of this 2006 trip was meant to help haul my then-girlfriend’s stuff out to her new school in Virginia, who was gracious enough to grind out another three hours so I could see Channels, the current group from J. Robbins of Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and Government Issue fame.

    I’d missed Jawbox by a hair in their heyday, and while their breakup didn’t appear acrimonious, the situation felt irreversible. As such, I was resigned to keeping the band’s discography on repeat without any real hope of catching them on stage. Everything about Jawbox’s music synced perfectly with my sonic desires—driving guitars that could wind around melodies without getting lost, bass that carried weight, never content to sit back but always locking into the spine of the rhythm, drums that pulled enough from jazz so as to be essential to the structure of the song while giving life to each refrain, and vocals that ranged comfortably between shouts and harmonies. Intricate while free of self-indulgence, threaded with pop structures but heated up and twisted into gnarly, liminal forms, Jawbox was music that forced you to pay attention to the musicality while still giving you plenty to sing along with.

    Burning Airlines was going somewhat strong when I caught on though. Their first album Mission: Control has served as my guitar-plucking rosetta stone until pretty much this day. A more Robbins-led affair, this band cut down the gain a hair but more thoroughly plumbed the depths that pop-rock alchemists like XTC and Echo and the Bunnymen had to offer. I was lucky enough to see this band a couple of times around their second album Identikit, though luck wasn’t much in the band’s favor, as immediately after 9/11 their Brian-Eno-referencing band name had become impossible to adequately promote. They’d quietly wrap it up shortly after a tour that had at least a few venues wary of putting them on the marquee.

    From there Robbins settled primarily into production work, which continues now as he shines up your favorite bands’ favorite bands. So it was a surprise to hear about Channels at first, his band with his wife Janet Morgan and drummer Darren Zentek, but a delightful one, as Robbins pairing up vocals with his wife further realized the hidden strength of Jawbox. Morgan is a wonderful vocalist and bassist, bringing a little skronk and grime to her playing while vocalizing in tandem with Robbins, applying a new timbre that the vocal knots he would tie with Bill Barbot in Jawbox, swirling voices that would ride thermals into the sky, particularly with “Win Instantly,” a swinging, emotional crusher.

    But Robbins was somewhat up front about the struggles of his and Morgan’s son Callum, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy. Robbins spoke about these struggles and how they’ve worked to help give their son a fulfilling, robust life, recently and at various points since he was born. Suffice to say they are the kind of struggles that keep a musician from a regular touring life, which I was aware of even back then—so if I wanted to see Channels, I’d have to find myself in Baltimore at the right time, which seemed absurd until it wasn’t.

    I did not drive to the east coast solely to see one of my favorite bands, but it was a major motivating factor. And usually I don’t really try to speak to my favorite musicians, as I’d found they often never lived up to the inflated image in one’s own mind, but how could I not on this trip? Who knew if I’d ever get to see the man play guitar and sing ever again, and I didn’t want him to be my friend (or at least, I didn’t expect it to happen), but I did think it was important that he know just how valuable his work was to me, and leading off with a mileage count seemed like a good way to indicate this.

    Robbins was wowed, and very appreciative, if my memory is to be believed. I tried not to linger, and he probably doesn’t even remember the exchange, but it meant a lot to me to say thanks. I figured it would be my last and only chance, no matter how small a gesture as measured on a galactic scale.

    So imagine my fucking surprise when, more than a decade later, Jawbox announced a reunion tour this past January. I suppose I should have seen it coming, they weren’t even the first Jaw- band to kick the tires, but I didn’t dare hope. And then I was worried—I never believed they’d reunite just to limp upstage and cash a check, but I’d made my peace, and while Jawbox was on the shelf, they couldn’t possibly let me down. My imagination perfectly executed these songs on every spin, I’d ripped off everything I could, it was very possible that things would go awry. Ultimately, I feared that it would be a frosty, emotionless affair, a perfunctory execution of duty, sapped of passion or vitality. Even if it wasn’t these things, I would suddenly be forced to share my favorite band, this precious jewel I’d been coveting for so long that it was hard to believe was even real.

    But Jawbox’s first stop on the tour was in my town, and it was phenomenal. Zach Barocas seemed to defy physics with his drumming, Robbins and Barbot were impeccably intertwined, and Kim Coletta’s bass runs, unabashed expression of joy, and fabulous stage-stomping were the glue of sincerity between it all. There were no interstitial tuning noises, no giant backdrop, no cheeky intro or extraneous theatrics other than a required opening sample for “FF=66” that would have felt empty without. They put it all on stage just as they did in the 90’s, but with a sense that the world had finally caught up to Jawbox and everything was on the same wavelength, finally. We all sang happy birthday to Robbins and he seemed genuinely touched. The old dudes eventually started moshing, big city Boston grumps and old-timers breaking out from their crossed-arms to dance to the impossible, happening live on stage in front of us.

    A lot of great shows come and go, but I’m still floating on this one, and will be for a long time I think. I didn’t get a chance to say thanks to anyone on the band personally, but it no longer felt necessary, and maybe I just couldn’t formulate a worthwhile half-truth this time around. It’s enough to have followed Robbins through his musical career, which is still going strong with the recent release of his expansive and cumulative first “solo” album Un-Becoming, not to mention his time with Office of Future Plans and the incendiary Report Suspicious Activity. Robbins has never stopped, but it’s wonderful to have been given the gift of Jawbox at least one more time, especially as they reap reap a fuller expression of the joy and energy that is conducted through those of us who listen, and have been listening, all along.

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