The Dismemberment Plan
Webster Hall, New York, January 30
by David Holmes

In February 2003, I made the three-hour trip from Columbus, Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky to see the Dismemberment Plan. The show was in an art gallery, and not an art gallery like Columbus’ Wexner Center, with a stage and so forth, but just a big square room with pictures. Once the band started playing, however, it felt less like a sterile museum and more like your buddy’s house party. As the band blazed through a set of their greatest songs, they seemed to promise that a rock & roll revolution was on the horizon that mixed the cerebral funk of Talking Heads, the volatile sincerity of Fugazi, and the schizoid madness of Brainiac.

Then, less than 24 hours later, the Dismemberment Plan announced that they were calling it quits. For a kid who at that time spent more time listening to music than talking to girls, this was crushing.

But whatever the internal differences, creative or otherwise, that led them to this decision, it always seemed like nature was conspiring to keep them together. Their first “last show,” an outdoor event at Washington, DC’s Fort Reno (which I made the seven-hour trip to see) was met with a violent thunderstorm, and while the band played on long after it was probably safe to do so, it was far from the joyous event it was intended to be. So they added one more concert a few months later, a blistering show at DC’s 9:30 Club (another seven hours on the road) that provided fans with the closure they desired.

Then tragedy struck: Callum Robbins, the son of legendary J. Robbins, who produced the band’s last two albums, was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. In 2007, to help pay for Robbins’ medical bills, the Dismemberment Plan temporarily reunited for two charity shows that sold out in minutes.

This latest reunion at Webster Hall was conceived under happier conditions: the Barsuk re-release of their classic 1999 album, Emergency & I. And while bassist Eric Axelson admits to taking things “day to day.” History suggests this tour won’t be the last we see of the Dismemberment Plan.

Good thing too, because they’re still one of the best live bands on the planet. Call it years of playing together or solid stage presence, but for the most part, the band is so good live because they’ve got four consistent high-energy records from which to pull songs. Spastic oldies like “That’s When the Party Started” mingled with A-list classics like “What Do You Want Me to Say?” and “The City.” Even songs that I wasn’t mad about in the past like “Following Through” were given new life by the band’s unrelentingly intense performance.

Of course, no discussion of a Dismemberment Plan show is complete without mentioning their two live trademarks: the on-stage riot of “Ice of Boston” and the Top 40 deconstructionism of perennial closer “OK, Joke’s Over.” The crowd gave itself a good name by rushing the stage during “Ice of Boston” and Webster Hall gave itself a good name by allowing it to happen. And as for the requisite pop song inserted into the closer? The Far East Movement’s “Like a G6” was a reminder that Travis Morrison was never embarrassed to embrace trashy pop songs way before Pitchfork decided it was okay. Morrison ended the song by singing the National’s “Afraid of Everyone,” as if to suggest that the definition of “pop music” has expanded over the past 10 years.

(Also a brief note on the openers: Bells found a way to make instrumental post-rock fun, which is always a plus, and Jukebox the Ghost was a more conventional, though thoroughly enjoyable, newish wave band led by a guy who used to intern with Morrison at The Washington Post.)

Even though the Dismemberment Plan hasn’t released a new track in nearly a decade, their impact has reverberated through many of the bands that came in their wake. Travis Morrison’s lyrics suggest that it’s okay (maybe even essential) to dance and have fun, even when you’re feeling downright suicidal. Although the two bands sound nothing alike, it’s hard to imagine LCD Soundsystem having so much success without the Dismemberment Plan paving the way for sad-sack party animals. Although it’s uncertain when or if the band will reunite again, I just think back to how the night began with the bouncy “Ellen & Ben,” the last track off their last studio album, Change. It was a reminder that even when things seem like they’re over, they may have only just begun.