“What style of makeup are you looking for?”
I shrugged, told her I didn’t have the makeup vocabulary. I just wanted to look good. After my wife had finished adding the third layer of glitter to her eyes, I asked her to do mine. She asked if I wanted what she wore most days. Maybe a strong eye or lip, but mostly subtle. I laughed. I wanted it big. I wanted everyone to notice. Eventually we settled on the idea of a painting. A few colors running together on my eyes and a really bold cherry red lip. I thought it would go well with my beard. I was excited. I squirmed in the chair as she painted me, checking the mirror every few seconds. The moment she finished I ran to the bedroom, tearing off my carefully planned outfit to better coordinate with my new face. I settled on an old torn up Keith Haring t-shirt, because I was art. It felt freeing and fun and I hadn’t thought twice about it. I just wanted to go dance to one of my favorite bands.
“Should we get a car or take the bus?”
For the first time that night, nerves hit. I hadn’t thought this part through. I’d been so amped for everyone at the show to see how good I looked it hadn’t occurred to me I’d have to worry about what people in public think. Or say. Or do.
And that’s what a PWR BTTM show is. A space where you can feel good about everything other people might not want you to feel good about. I’d loved and related to the band’s electric sound and personal lyrics, but it hadn’t quite hit me until their show just how radical the whole endeavor is. We grabbed a car and headed down, only to find a sign on the door telling us to head around back. The band had it in their rider that they would only play all-ages shows but the venue wasn’t zoned for that. Rather than pass on a show with some of the best bands around, the venue was hosting the show in a ballroom attached to the sports bar next door. They’d never done that before and looked just as confused as I did. In place of the bar there was a tub of ice with water and sodas. All of the sports bars bathrooms had their usual “men” and “women” signs replaced with more gender neutral ones, again at the request of the band. At the open mic happening in the sports bar, the new signs were a punchline. In the ballroom they felt natural. This was a good space, full of a lot of love and comfort. Kids sat on the floor, waiting for the opening act. I felt old, but glad kids had this space. I could have used it when I was sixteen. As a dude in his late twenties happily married to a woman, I’ve never understood how I fit into the queer community. Neither does my wife, despite the meaningful relationships we’ve both shared with people regardless of their gender. Even as I struggle to settle on a term, I knew I fit in in this room.
I went to buy an iced tea when Ben Hopkins — one half of the queer punk duo — walked up to me. I’m not someone who gets star struck, but I’ve also never met a musician I love on those casual terms. I barely recognized him in a sweater and jeans, devoid of the slapped on makeup he’s usually wearing on stage or in videos. He complimented me on my makeup and I smiled and stuttered. He shook my hand and told me his name was Ben. I smiled and stuttered. I said yes a lot. At some point after he’d shifted topics I said “my name is Cass.” I watched as he walked away, making small talk with someone new every few feet.
There were three bands on the bill that night and while the makeshift venue meant no backstage area, Ben was the only one I saw talk to anyone. The only person who seemed truly in their element out in the crowd, listening to music and being a part of it all.
A few minutes before Petal, the opening band, took the stage, Ben ducked down behind a half wall in the corner of the room. He emerged moments later in a red sundress, his socks and sandals no longer hidden by his jeans. He wandered over to a mirrored wall and started pounding his face with reds and blues and more glitter than I’d ever seen. It was amazing to witness. The audience bobbed along to Petal but half of their eyes seemed glued to Ben. He was clearly painfully aware of this, finding a place in the audience and dancing for a few minutes, moving on once he realized he’d been spotted. Excited and shy, like a gorgeous version of the old Nintendo Duck Hunt dog. Petal put on an amazing set. Their cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” was weirdly haunting and still totally spot on. Their energy changed every few minutes from slow and thoughtful to fast and frantic. They were on fire, and it felt so weirdly special to get to watch it with Ben.
Their set ended and Ben took the stage. It was an area of the floor two feet from where he’d been standing previously, differentiated only by the presence of instruments. He explained that the other half of the PWR BTTM duo — the amazing and talented Liv Bruce — had lost their passport and been unable to make it to Canada. He apologized profusely, but insisted the show must go on. The second half of the set would be played solo but the first half would be a weird amalgamation of himself and the other two bands on the bill, Petal and Pity Sex. It was hard to be disappointed when they all seemed so enthused.
Live music is meant to be an experience. As a trade-off to losing the crisp, clean sound of an album, you get to witness a moment that will never happen again. This show will certainly never happen again. The venue will never host another show in the back room. Liv won’t forget their passport. I’ve heard Liv sing “I Wanna Boi” more than I’ve listened to almost any other song of the last few years and as sad as I am that I missed out on hearing their rendition, watching Kiley from Petal turn to the audience to fill in the blanks felt fun and intimate, like singing it in the shower with the whole fucking world. There’s no denying the makeshift band took a minute to find their rhythm at the top of the set, but I found it with them and any initial hesitation was gone almost immediately. We were still witnessing magic.
PWR BTTM’s traditional lack of boundaries combined with the stage’s literal lack of boundaries clearly struck everyone. A group of over eager teens up front made every attempt to turn stage patter into small talk. Ben struck a line between recognizing his position as a beacon for confused teens and the sort of spotlight-grabbing person who dons full genderqueer drag and climbs on stage to shred on guitar. Between occasional tongue pops and referring to the audience as a collective “honey,” he preached his philosophy of empathy over anger. One of the teens yelled “down with cis” after a short aside about the futility of the gender binary.
“Nah, just whatever with cis.”
He talked about the good people in the world, and the importance of never giving into anger with the bad ones. Just tell them what your terms are and that they’ll have to live with them. They either will or they won’t, but you won’t have to expend the mental energy on the anger and there’s a better chance they’ll come around.
“The most radical thing you can do is be empathetic.”
The person beside me whispered “oh shit.” Ben shrugged and played a song from their next album, out next summer. Each song was punctuated with a thought. A hilarious and self-deprecating aside, followed by a poignant note on navigating the world as the sort of person the world finds hard to pin down. My smile got bigger every three seconds. It was affirming and fun, a combination of everything I want my life to be. My wife cried. It was meaningful and deep. As the set came to a close, the crowd continued to grow. A whole slew of people looking to see Pity Sex (an amazing band), totally unaware of what they were walking into. The set closed on “New Hampshire”, a song they hadn’t yet released at the time. It was slower and deeper than anything I’ve heard from them so far and I was moved. Ben dropped his guitar and walked out, directly into the crowd.
My wife and I had to leave before Pity Sex. We were bummed, we both like their music, but we had to run. As we made our way back through the unmarked doors and into the sports bar we were attached to, Ben spotted us and thanked us for coming. He reached out for a hug, the formality of his earlier handshake gone now that the dress was on and the show was over. We said our goodbyes and gushed about the experience. He hugged us three more times, our faces surely giving away what this all meant to us. We walked out, ready to face the world. And that’s only one half of a PWR BTTM show.
They’ll be back in November, and they’ll be whole. I can’t fucking wait.