The city feels as if it’s at boiling point. It’s been an unsettling spring, one characterised by political upset and senseless violence, and now, as the season gives way to summer, a blanket of oppressive heat descends, stifling breath and shortening tempers. Electing to leave the sweltering confines of the bus, we approach the venue on foot. It’s a route I’ve trodden countless times, but one which now feels strangely alien. It’s been a few years since the brutalist buildings of the once formidable Heygate estate were demolished, but already towers of steel and glass rise imperiously above the effaced landscape. The tenants who occupied those blocks have long since departed, spirited away to locations as far afield as Slough and St Albans. Turning onto the street of the venue, we pass another local institution, the Coronet Theatre, now in its 139th and reportedly final year of business. The venue is scheduled for closure in January 2018. It’s a narrative of gentrification which has become depressingly familiar, the offence it should rightly elicit is transmuted into apathy by a sense of its irresistible force.
But Show Me The Body aren’t ones to take things lying down. Taking the stage to a chorus of feedback, frontman Julian Cashwan Pratt grips the microphone and slurs “In the city and I’m ready to fight / canine ready to bite / unaffiliated ready to fight / my city ain’t ready to die.” At the closing of the couplet, the drums and bass kick in with terrifying force, the sonic barrage hurling the crowd into immediate disarray. Though an as-yet unreleased track, the crowd are soon screaming Julian’s call to arms back at him. Suddenly, the inevitable feels distinctly assailable.
NYC lifers SMTB have gained a reputation as a band militantly opposed to the white-washing forces of urban assault. The very fabric of their music constitutes a paean to their hometown, not just as an evocation of the city’s rich and varied musical heritage –despite the abundance of hardcore and rap references– but also as an aural portrait of the cityscape itself, rendered in all its potent and unforgiving glory. Set highlight ‘Space Faithful’ lumbers disjointedly before juddering suddenly into life as if animated by a power-surge through decaying circuitry; murky bass rumbles throughout the set with industrial force.
While it’s inherently situated music, its template admits broader application. The feedbacking banjo screeches like a dilapidated subway car, depending on your frame of reference. Moreover, while the experiences that inform the lyrics may be unique to the band, the faceless forces of commodification they name are certainly not. Whether it’s Williamsburg, Peckham or somewhere else entirely, the sentiment is applicable and the music speaks to the disillusioned and disaffected the world over.
I feel that the latter point strikes at the heart of SMTB’s appeal. They resolutely refuse to play the part of the hype-band, far less to entertain the detached posturing that the label so often entails. Instead, they speak to the place they’re in, forging alliances with audiences and local artists alike. Tonight they’re joined by a deconstructed Sub Luna City—local rappers Rago Foot and Jada Sea take turns to spit bars over Black Mack’s dark and glitchy productions. Even Elephant resident Jesse James Solomon makes a brief appearance, showing up for a grand total of about a minute to lead a chorus of ‘I’m so SE17’ – the area’s postcode. Even if this slightly bemusing moment makes sense in the context. As he reminds us, this is Jesse’s ends, not the property developer’s.
At times, the very distinction between band and audience is broken down. Hardcore banger ‘Tight SWAT’ sees the microphone hurled into the crowd, only to be taken up by an audience member who spits out a word-perfect rendition of the verse, a feat which anyone familiar with Pratt’s style of vocal delivery–an animalistic mixture of growls and barks–can appreciate the magnitude and devotion it testifies to.
By the time the set draws to a close with the guttural crush of ‘Body War’, the venue has been reduced to a seething mass of bodies, energy utterly expended and clothes clinging with sweat. I find myself suddenly glad of my earlier decision to purchase a T-shirt from a local artist selling his wares out of a plastic bag in the smoking area, as the one I’m currently wearing resembles more of a limp rag than anything constituting clothing.
Spilling out of the club, the crowd lies strewn across the street, reluctant to go home. SMTB have previously described their band as ‘community organizers’, and gazing over the scene appropriating the pavements in the wake of the gig, such a label certainly feels apt. Faces rendered newly familiar from across the mosh-pit chat excitedly in the balmy night air, while the band themselves make the rounds through the crowd, greeting fans like old friends.
A couple hours and road-bevs later, I walk back home along the same route as earlier; however, it now feels different somehow, those impersonal towers a little less overbearing, the Coronet’s closure ceasing to feel so set in stone. Put that down to a false confidence instilled by a couple drinks too many if you will, but I think the change of perspective speaks to something more profound. Against the divisive forces of austerity, solidarity is utterly invaluable. SMTB’s incendiary set constitutes a reminder that others share your standpoint, and that, in Pratt’s own words, the city isn’t ready to die just yet, at least not as long as there are still bands like this about.