Notes on a Final Show: The Academy Is . . . (2003-2011)
The second night of the Fueled by Ramen 15th Anniversary celebration happened the Friday after Labor Day, the end of a week that had been both somewhat short and unbearably long. Summer was not quite done with Manhattan yet; it was hot, sticky, and close. I was tired and perhaps a little bit feverish, worn thin, or perhaps worn out.
I almost didn’t go.
But after a (slightly longer than planned) disco nap , I made my way down to T5 and eeled my way into the pit. Oversleeping meant I was further back than I really wanted to be, but it was early yet, and the crowd was loosely packed. I’ll move up as we go along, I thought, and I did, slipping into breaks in the ranks as the crowd shifted between sets.
Oversleeping also meant I missed the first band, so I started the evening with A Rocket To the Moon, and my notes on them were “So that’s who Halvo is” and “Oh, you’re the ones responsible for the Fueled By Ramen Holiday Sale song!” The former is their bassist, and is properly known as Eric Halvorsen; the latter is a remarkably infectious earworm - part commercial and part community in-joke – used (or, I should say, deployed) in annual winter holiday promotions. I realized it belonged to them when they sang it for us.
The Academy Is . . . were next. The first I saw of them was the flash of skin and color that is Andy “The Butcher” Mrotek’s chestpiece. I was both wryly amused by my ability recognize him by his tattoos from practically the back of the venue, and pleasantly surprised / relieved to see him climbing behind the drums, as at that point, the last I heard he had left the band. (Michael Guy “Chizzy” Chislett, their second guitarist, also recently left; he was not there.)
Then the rest of them came out. It took me a few songs to realize they were playing their first record (Almost Here, 2005) straight through, with only one later song (We’ve Got a Big Mess on Our Hands, from Santi (2007)) added at the end. I was slightly late to their party, arriving only in 2008, shortly before the release of their third record, Fast Times at Barrington High.
The girls around me certainly knew what was up, though, because they were singing along and shuffle-dancing as best they could, hemmed in as we were by the sheer volume of bodies. This was the thing that stuck with me: they way they were grinning at each other, hearing these songs that they probably listen to all the time, but have slid out of the regular show rotation as the band moved forward.
It made me happy, too, though I’m somewhat more partial to Fast Times, and the way it sounds like the summers in high school felt. A little bit happy, a little bit sad, a little bit frustrated with the pressure cooker and suburbia, mixed with a certain amount of bravado and longing.
And then it was over. The band melted away into the wings. The Butcher came out again, briefly, bearing a tambourine, his presence ruffling the front row into a burst of cheering. He extended his arms and – well, it wasn’t quite a bow, but it was clearly a gesture of farewell. Here was where my heart clenched a little bit, though I was glad to have the moment, and to be able to say good-bye properly. (William Beckett appeared again at the end of the evening, but more on that later.)
At the time I thought I was only saying goodbye to the Butcher. The others, we had been told, would be soldiering on, while he and Chizzy pursued other, separate projects. I was warily hopeful for the future – some bands can survive a radical fissioning (i.e. Panic! at the Disco) others cannot – and I was curious what kind of music TAI . . . would produce in a post-Butcher, post-Chizzy future.
Meanwhile, the show kept rolling. Gym Class Heroes came out and played a tight, focused set. They had also been away for a while, and clearly it had done them good. Cobra Starship closed the evening down with more old favorites, including – and here is where William Beckett reappeared – Snakes on a Plane.
I know the song is (or was supposed to be )a joke. It is nonetheless one of my favorites, not least because of the way Beckett’s voice punches through the layers of noise and soars above it all, sweet, clear and true. This ridiculous song from an equally silly movie was the song that made me say Who is that? and go in search of his (their) non-silly-movie related music.
I slipped away as the last notes were fading out, sweaty, thirsty and tired, but suffused with warm concert glow. The pictures I got of TAI . . . weren’t that great, but I put them up anyway, since the internet always appreciates new pictures. They’ll be back, I thought. I’ll get better ones later. (The ones of Gym Class Heroes and Cobra Starship were better, but only marginally so. But that is a story for another day.)
And then last Saturday, they announced the fissioning was actually going to be a complete dissolution. The Academy Is . . ., is no more. (I will still probably get more pictures of them in their new, non-TAI . . . adventures, but, it will not quite be the same.) It was a jolt – a sharp, unexpected punch to the heart – because it always is, when a band you love comes completely unscrewed. But it was not truly a surprise.
When I heard (or rather read; I found out via Twitter) I thought some more about this show, now their last, and was extra glad that I had gone.
I also thought about the other shows of theirs I had attended. The first time I saw them, at the New York stop of the mtvU Sunblock Festival, held in the back parking lot at Jones Beach. It was July, and it was also pouring with rain, blowing hard, and so cold the kids were drinking hot chocolate between bands. (The Butcher, who normally plays the drums in booty shorts and a smile, was fully dressed and wearing jeans. Every time he hit a cymbal there was a spray off water.)
I was wearing a poncho, but it didn’t help very much. By the time TAI . . . came out I was soaked almost to the skin, standing in puddle, and having a somewhat serious discussion with myself on the topic of “can we go home now?” Then, as sheets of rain blew across the stage, they started their set with About A Girl, and for the next 15 minutes, it did actually feel like summer.
The second time I saw them was last summer, when they went out with KISS. That show was also at Jones Beach, though on the main stage, and was (mercifully) warmer and drier than the first one. The vibe was a little off – the KISS crowd was definitely not their crowd – but they came out and valiantly bounced through their set just the same.
And then there was this last time, when I finally got to see them indoors. I was thinking the next time I might get all the way to seeing them at their own show, but it is not to be.
Still: I am grateful for this last gift, this last show, for the fact that they managed to hold on this long, and that I was able to be there when the whole room sang with them, even all the way at the back.
Because you don’t get that kind of magic very often.