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In concert: Unrest at Black Cat

unrestMark Robinson led reunited Unrest through a hit-heavy though sleepy set. (All photos Evy Mages/FTWP)

By Aaron Leitko

At 18 years old, you are an adult in the eyes of the law. At 25, you've lived a quarter of a century. So as milestones go, 26 is relatively benign. It's a year without apparent significance, no better or worse than 27, 15 or 32.

Which makes it as good an age as any to hold a Teen-Beat anniversary party.

The indie-rock label, founded in 1984 by Mark Robinson -- then a student at Arlington's Wakefield High School -- has always been determinedly quirky, especially when it comes to numbers. Teen-Beat has assigned random label catalogue numbers to coffee mugs, T-shirts and even interns. So maybe a non-traditional anniversary celebration isn't that out of character.

On Saturday night, four Teen-Beat bands -- including some variations of Robinson's flagship band, Unrest -- gathered to perform on the Black Cat's main stage. After all these years, not to mention countless chiming chords and a legacy of manufactured surprise, only one had fallen a little out of practice.

unrest

The Rondelles, an Albuquerque, N.M.-bred girl-pop trio, hadn't performed in its original lineup for almost a decade. Riffs were bungled and cues were blown. There was a lot of giggling: "We haven't played a show in 10 years; we haven't practiced in 15," explained drummer/keyboardist Oakley Munson. But if you saw the band in its heyday, you might not have noticed much of a difference. In 1999, the Rondelles -- who dressed in '60s mod garb (think minis and tall boots) and played guitars that looked like they were designed for "The Jetsons" -- got by because they looked really cool. That's still the case.

Or maybe the Rondelles just had a case of first-reunion jitters. The rest of the bill -- Bossanova, Versus and the ultimate lineup of Unrest -- had at least one other Teen-Beat reunion experience. Each was present at the label's 20th anniversary shindig, a three-night stand.

Not that Saturday's performance was a rerun. The 20th anniversary was a D.C.-only affair, while the 26th has been a tour -- stopping in Cambridge, Mass., Brooklyn, N.Y., Philadelphia and Carrboro, N.C. And just to make the D.C. gig singular, Robinson reunited three different lineups of Unrest, a recombination that added variety and also logistical challenges.

Basically, this experiment demanded switching bass players every four songs, with the band's final bassist, Bridget Cross, sticking around for a headlining set. But the process served as a de facto history of the label's sonic evolution -- shifting gradually from hard-core-influenced thrashing to herky-jerky art-rock to crisp and melodic indie-pop.

unrest

Most people in the audience came to hear the latter's lilting minimalism.

The band's final iteration -- which released the much-loved records "Imperial f.f.r.r." and "Perfect Teeth" before disbanding in 1994 -- performed a dutifully hit-heavy, though sleepy, set. Opening with acoustic ballad "Isabel," Unrest built steam slowly, moving the energy level incrementally upward toward the show-closing blowout "Make Out Club." It was a confident reminder of what gave the band one of the most endearing sounds of the early '90s.

When "Imperial f.f.r.r." was first released in 1992, it arrived on relatively equal footing with Pavement's indie-rock classic, "Slanted and Enchanted." That band, which broke up in 1999, reunited earlier this year for its own sold-out world tour; Teen-Beat and Unrest will have to settle for a few mid-capacity clubs. One explanation: Pavement's music -- with non-sequitur-riddled lyrics and scuzzy riffs -- is more readily identified with the era of grunge, buzz clips and "Beavis & Butt-head" cartoons. Unrest's driving rhythms and jangling guitars, by contrast, were never the manna of slackerdom. Saturday night's visit to their songbook proved that whether it's the label's 20th birthday or its 26th, Teen-Beat's music is timeless.

By Aaron Leitko  |  July 12, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: The Rondelles, Unrest  
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