Heading to the Cribs show at Santos Party House, I could feel my brain wired like a motherboard. I was coming off of a two-week caffeine withdrawal, freshly rejuvenated by two black coffees. My fingers danced with anxiety as uncontrolled memories popped into my head. I thought about my camp counselor, Jared, who slap-boxed the kids in our cabin. If one started to cry, he’d play his usual trick: forced flatulence. He’d curl up on the floor like Grotowski’s cat, red faced, concentration veining out of his forehead, sucking in air, ass cheeks flexing until he let it rip. Inevitably, the kid would stop crying and Jared would slap-box another camper.
I thought about my first Cribs show. In 2006, they opened for Death Cab for Cutie and Franz Ferdinand at Hammerstein Ballroom. I was supposed to take my high school girlfriend, but she had called me that day to let me know that she and my best friend of fourteen years had been playing a little game of hide the loose ends. I went alone and screamed along to “Mirror Kissers.” “You aren’t allowed to say that you’re better/You like to tell yourself that I’m nobody/I think you must have known I’d make you sorry.” I cried. I got drunk. I danced with kids from the Cribs’ hometown of Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, England. “And don’t you fuckin’ forget it!” They draped the flag over me, and I felt better. I left before Franz or Death Cab performed and went instead to watch a high school band play at the now defunct Don Hill’s. I danced with a sophomore girl, and we forgot about each other together.
I’ve been following the Cribs ever since. Their eponymous debut album and sophomore release (New Fellas) made me feel cool. Sometimes it’s that simple, especially for an ex–fat kid caught in the confused conformity of mid-teen years. The Jarman brothers had me hooked. Ryan (vocals, bass) was the blood and guts of the band. He wailed into the mic, head cocked up like a baby bird ready for food, and out came his shredded voice. His twin brother, Gary (vocals, guitar), played the cretin—the punk who made it look easy, who spat beer on the crowd and fell offstage. Their younger brother, Ross, was the artist; he played the drums like a machine, like a batting cage’s pitcher—consistent.
When Men’s Needs, Women’s Wants, Whatever was released in 2007, I thought that would be their launch pad, that it would send them beyond the realms of midsize venues like Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza and on to the stadium shows of their contemporaries. I was wrong.
The addition of Johnny Marr didn’t help. The ex-Smith took them out of their sheisty glory, influencing them with synth and heart-on-your-sleeve dribble that didn’t work live or recorded. Watching them play at Bowery Ballroom, I lost my faith in them. I don’t know whether they were drunk, or sick, or sick of one another, but the set was awful and I was ready to give up on the Jarmans.
The Cribs’s latest album, In the Belly of the Brazen Bull, marks the band’s first real progression since their incarnation. Their sound has matured. They dropped Marr and wrote an album with a chip on its shoulder, and it worked. Songs like “Come On, Be a No One” seem directed at record companies—and possibly Marr. “Come on, I’ll be a no one for you. Stay home and write a song for you. Got you wrong, it’s not your fault. Sometimes I’d rather feel cheap, you can’t keep suckling me.” The transition between the last four songs on the album is a thing of beauty, ending with the kitschy but honest “Arena Rock Encore with Full Cast.” Their spit-rock ways are still heavy, but tracks such as “Like a Gift Giver” and “Stalagmites” show a deeper concentration and ease with harmony and melody.
Yes, the album is great, but they weren’t the best part of their show.
Walking into Santos, the bouncer was unusually tender with my wrist, making sure the sticky part of my wristband didn’t catch any of my arm hair. I walked in having missed the first opener, Devin. Strolling through the crowd, I was surprised to see how young the attendees were, many in their mid- to late teens. Was this who the Cribs were attracting? I found a friend and chatted about this and that. One of her boys told me a story about how he pissed himself back in college and had a meeting with Madonna the next day, which he attended in his piss-stained jeans. This, I appreciated. Before I got the intel on whether she was in on the snag, the lights dimmed and the second opener came on.
Alex Winston is a short young woman with a hell storm of performance charisma, lost in hair and words like Stevie Nicks without the muumuu. She introduced her eight piece as “The Partridge Family” and wore her towel of raven hair draped about her. I had never heard of her, but I found myself wanting to know everything about her as soon as she got onstage, dressed in the shadow of preperformance lighting. I wanted the Alex Winston trilogy. The Alex Winston Origin story. The Alex Winston Churchill Quote Guide.
On she sang. I wanted to see her face behind that unkempt bushel. The sound was so powerful, I needed to see the effect extolling it had on this creature. When she flipped her hair back, showing her face in the shadow of the spotlight, the crowd could see how easy it was for her. Natural talent.
Winston’s been working at it since she was ten, trained classically. I can’t say for sure whether there was a teacher tuning the chords of her voice or whether she found pitch off the echo of the bathroom wall, but her Detroit roots certainly set a heavy stump to grow from. She listened to the Stooges, Chuck Berry (with whom she’s performed), MC5, and all the other jive walkers and jive talkers. But she’s not jumping around, wiggling like Iggy. There seems to be a “Winston way.” As Mick Jagger studied dancing girls at the discotheque and exaggerated their moves to come up with his chicken stance and finger wagging, Winston seems to have taken on the hand gestures of Maury Povich guests. And really, what could be more commanding than that? Each fist clenched with the shrewd anger of fallout from a white-trash-incest-divorce.
I quickly fell in love with her, promptly endowing her with the three profile traits that characterize my archetypal dream girl: (1) She can claim Cherokee blood; (2) She sleeps with brothers—in order to torture them both; (3) She uses the word chick disdainfully and will tear your throat out if you call her one. Likely all of the above is untrue, but I was undeterred. I wanted to find a rain-soaked park. Washington Square. Tompkins Square. Whatever. I wanted to sit on a wet bench with her, not caring about damp bottoms, and I wanted to make out with her in the post-rain dew.
She opened the set with the blaring “Fire Ant,” which ended with her grabbing at her hair screaming, “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE,” as the Partidge Family crescendoed with her. The track “Locomotive” stood out with its dreamy backing for Winston’s booming voice, which sounds like the lovechild of Florence Welch and Karen O. The song is about a cheating beau and reads like an old Springsteen tune, full of sentiment and frustration. “I wish I cared about the things you care about, but I don’t. Your scrill and the bars and the lake and the stars, but I don’t.” I’ve spoken to many bands about what it’s like being an opener versus a headliner, and many say that they give up as openers because they know they aren’t playing for their fans. Winston played her set like she was a high priestess in the art of converting followers. There was an empty feeling when she left the stage, as if an encore was expected, but the encore was the Cribs, who played hard and well. But it wasn’t how it used to be. It didn’t feel like a Lord of the Flies slap-boxing match. It didn’t feel like I was getting my heart broken for the first time. It felt like a band asking for acceptance after years of being the opener, not caring enough to headline. I wasn’t sixteen anymore. I had found my individuality not in the fads of my peers, but in the dips and valleys of my life experiences. I had graduated from high school, college, had a full-time job and (though I still had a somewhat baffling perception of a healthy relationship) was less willing to deal with bull. In The Belly of the Brazen Bull tackles all of these subject matters but seemingly in delinquent slander.
I’d grown up, I told myself. I left the concert before the Cribs finished their first set and found myself at a party on Lafayette, dancing with a girl I’d never met, hoping we could forget each other together.
Noah Wunsch is a freelance writer who does not live in Brooklyn.