SXSW 2016: Protomartyr: like Sinatra, only punk and grouchy

By Steve Scheibal

The band Protomartyr.  Photo by Zak Bratto
The band Protomartyr.
Photo by Zak Bratto

A friend raves: If your favorite substitute teacher put together a band and they were great, that’s Protomartyr. And that’s mostly right. But seeing them live, it’s important to note a couple of additional fake things:

  • This would now be a “former” substitute teacher.
  • The band would be both a cause and effect of the unemployment.
  • And our pal up there on stage isn’t real happy about any of it.

In fairness, the Detroit four-piece took the stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s deep in the night on Friday morning, after Day 2 of South by Southwest was deep into Day 3. It’s quite possible that frontman Joe Casey was wiped out (or, y’know, something else). But his effect was more grouchy than rocking.

(There’s an interesting byway in Indieville devoted to Casey’s effect, especially vis-a-vis the roughly decade’s age difference between him and his bandmates. A highlight from the “Descriptions of Joe Casey”Tumblr: “Protomartyr are awesome but they look like 3 scared teens who started a band with their alcoholic uncle.”)

Protomartyr’s blunt-force rock provides some sneaky melodies, mostly off Greg Ahee and Scott Davidson’s swirling guitar and bass. Casey’s voice serves as a percussion auxiliary, bolstering Alex Leonard’s danceable drumming. His cadence is concussive.

On stage, Casey adopts the Frank Sinatra/Bob Pollard style of singing at the audience, adult beverage in-hand. Except he sings like the words should leave a physical mark – and he can look a little put out that they don’t.

For all the hard edges, though, Protomartyr sent people home with a dance party. A couple of guys up front gamely tried to start a mosh pit, but the propulsive beat better lent itself to the bopping heads throughout the audience.

“This place is great,” Casey said as he and his mates started wrapping up. “You guys are great.”

It sounded sincere.

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