Most of the music you love at age 16 typically brings some embarrassment at age 32. I laugh off Something Corporate. I downplay Taking Back Sunday. I don’t even talk about Blink 182 anymore. The one exception is Hot Water Music and their 2002 album Caution. This album, and this band, remains a big deal to me. Despite this, I was surprised they were organizing a 25th anniversary tour where they would be playing it in full.
Anniversary, reunion and nostalgia tours in general are commonplace now as artists try to harken back to a time when there was more money on the table. I don’t blame them. But I never expected Hot Water Music to be a viable product in the nostalgia economy. I didn’t think there were enough people like me out there.
Part of this is that they were never really canonized. When Neutral Milk Hotel or Cursive have a reunion tour, you can point to something like a glowing Pitchfork review when the site was at its taste-making height, or song placement in a memorable movie or commercial that blew the band up for a year. Hot Water Music had no such thing, yet here they were, at the mid-sized Echoplex, playing to a throng of aging punks.
Punk music ages better than emo or even indie rock. The subject matter gets to be broad and based purely on the thrill of feeling an emotion extremely hard. Whereas a band like Something Corporate might write songs about the specifics of a high school break up with the emotional immaturity of a teen, a punk band, even a similarly young one, just writes about pain and determination. That’s the resounding theme in a lot of Hot Water Music’s best work: all of this feels bad, and I’m not giving in.
I actually messed up buying my ticket. Seeing that they were playing two dates at the Echoplex, I assumed they would be playing Caution at both. Instead, they were playing their 1999 album No Division in my night, with some others mixed in. What this meant was that I was confused and surprised by their song choices, but also surrounded by the true hardcore. When I first walked in, I noticed they were spread out with plenty of room in the front. Everyone seemed as old or older than I. Was this going to be a subdued crowd full of people too beat up in 2019 to open up a pit?
Sort of. The audience packed in once Hot Water Music took the stage, but the pit was tame and did not extend pas the first 3 or 4 rows. My crowd traversal strategy is typically sneak into the gaps that form in a crowd as they try to escape the whirlpool of bodies. That was hard when the moshing wasn’t anywhere near my position. I remained patient and seized every new gap until I was close to the stage and, also, getting elbowed in the neck. It was a noticeably taller and huskier crowd than I was used to, and it felt especially true when I got the wind knocked out of me from a flying shoulder.
Chuck Ragan’s voice is as grizzled, haggard and raspy as it ever was. Sometimes he sings like he’s in the middle of a meal and hasn’t finished chewing, but it all works to give his songs a reckless slurring. If you enunciate on a line like, “The pain this morning fills my head, it’s Jameson, it means that I’m not dead,” how convincing can you really be?
His singing shined late in the set on a solo version of “God Deciding.” I first heard this song on a split album with Alkaline Trio, which is an odd place for it, since it’s stood the test of time as one of their best songs. It was an ostensibly anti-war song set against the backdrop of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and it was the first “political” song that ever really got to me. It never lets up and gets downright anthemic with hard hitting rhyme after rhyme, always circling back to the words God Deciding. It felt urgent, energizing, and righteous. Ragan shreds his own throat as he interrogates the world: Who will pay for all the tears? All the lies? All the time, living blind, playing God Deciding? It’s still the way I think protest songs should sound like, but to call it simply a protest song seems to downplay its universality.
A side effect of going on the No Division night was that I was surprised and bowled over by a lot of the set list. Nostalgia tours are successful because so many fans spent years wishing they could see a particular song they discovered late in person. But there’s something equally satisfying about being caught off guard by songs I wasn’t expecting. I hadn’t thought about songs like “Driving Home” and “At The End of a Gun” in literal years, and there they were, right in front of me, exactly as I remembered them. I spent teenage afternoons studying the bass tabs of the song “Free Radio Gainesville” and convinced myself it wasn’t possible with human hands, and there was Jason Black, just fucking doing it. It hit me hard, in a mixture of glee and longing.
In the end, Hot Water Music played the two Caution songs that really mattered — “Remedy” and “Trusty Chords.” “Remedy” is a blitz that never eases on the gas pedal, and is the closest thing they have to a hit single. “Trusty Chords” may as well be their anthem, so it ended the night. A few hundred people screamed the chorus — “I hate this place, I love these chords” — and it felt like my whole reason for being there.
The music I listen to now is not much like Hot Water Music, even the punk and hardcore songs. While emotional and depressed, there were still some hesitance and inhibitions about writing extremely vulnerable songs. You see this in songs like “Trusty Chords,” which treat the prospect of therapy and anti-depressants as uncertain new territory, resolving instead to will himself above it. In 2019, with what we know about mental health and a firm precedent of songs about Xanax, it is hard to imagine someone valorizing self-determination over professional help.
But it’s that valorization that gives their music evergreen power. I love songs that accurately convey disgust at the world, and the helplessness to change the things that are wrong. I love songs that channel anger at the wickedness and darkness. But even my favorite songs that circle that theme don’t settle on optimism or empowerment, because those have become corny in the dark days of the 21st century.
Hot Water Music songs tell you otherwise. They tell you “It will all be over soon” and “I took with me the things I found, I used them to help slow me down / and start again.” Maybe it’s guided by a sense to keep things “masculine” but regardless, it ends up being a useful part of the emotional diet. “Remedy” goes, “No regrets, falling fits / I’ll strip the gauze and bleed it.” As an adult tries to find healthy ways to deal with regret and anxiety, I know that things aren’t that simple or easy. But it feels good to hear someone root for strength, and believe in it so much that it must be screamed.