At age 54, Penelope Houston has grown comfortably into her punk icon image. The frontwoman for seminal San Francisco punk band the Avengers has spent her life thrusting the dull, clumsy blade of youth's raw emotion into the forge of life experience and working it to a razor's edge.
The Avengers are not alone in having emerged from the fires as a more keen and finely honed rock band than what went in, but they are lonelier than they once were, having retained something most of their contemporaries lack. While others crawled from the primordial musical soup of rage, volume and muted power chords to evolve as folk artists, pop stars or D-list celebrities, the Avengers stayed right where they were and thrashed even more wildly in all their newfound elbow room.
And thrash they did at Amsterdam Bar & Hall on Friday night before a mixed crowd of old punks, young hipsters and the occasional out-of-place guy in a suit. The audience, which was noticeably smaller than the hall could've held, meandered and spread itself around the venue during opening acts Total Trash, the Pinsch and Gateway District, but moved almost uniformly to the front when the Avengers took the stage. Houston and company owned both that stage and that crowd as their set wiped the haze from our modern lens and offered us a peek back at an earlier, nearly forgotten melodic punk sensibility.
In the end, I found it a little unsettling to see someone who looked like she could be working in the cubicle next to me at a call center or insurance firm, but who was instead rocking the Amsterdam like that. This wasn't because her age reflected poorly on her, but because it reflected poorly on those of us who've lost or abandoned what she's still got.
Imagine a world in which Soul Asylum never signed to Columbia or the Goo Goo Dolls never stopped being that garage band from Buffalo that always played to an empty Uptown Bar. Imagine that the Replacements had kept the band together and never lost the momentum they reached on "Pleased To Meet Me". Imagine that the Ramones were all still alive, or that the Clash didn't make "Combat Rock". That world you're imagining is a world the Avengers create whenever they step on stage.
And, in an era when much of what we now know as punk is more well-executed style parody than honest and proper rock music, the Avengers kept it real by avoiding self mimicry and dodging the conventions that sprang both from and against their own music. As if to drive that point home, they approached the end of their set with a cover of "Paint It Black" that sounded like it should have been a punk band's original song. Then, during the encore, they touted out "Money (That's What I Want)" in defiance of yet another false adage: That there's some mystical divide between fans of the Beatles and fans of the Stones. The Avengers know the truth: There is no divide. It's all just rock 'n' roll.
Girls Got Rhythm Fest continues on Saturday, May 11th at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul with music by Is/Is, Marilu and the Machetes, Sugar Stems and Cherie Currie. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the cover is $20 for this 21-and-over rock show.
[Photo: Rob Callahan]