Last week at Gasa Gasa, the political Rhode Island punk band addressed the people in front of it and not those in Washington, D.C.
The context for Downtown Boys reasserts itself weekly if not daily. The band formed in 2014, two years before Donald Trump was elected president, but the Trump Administration gives the political punk band a reason to exist almost every time he or his Cabinet members open their mouths. Team Trump didn’t invent racism, sexism, transphobia, colonialism and toxic masculinity, but it uses these tools to assert the preeminent position of wealthy straight white men in the culture daily.
At Gasa Gasa last Thursday night, Downtown Boys won because Victoria Ruiz sang to the people in the room, not past them to people who weren’t. The songs were ones we could rally around, ones that suggested holding those with unearned power accountable, ones that said there’s still a place for us in a country whose government appears to want to remake America as a ’60s sitcom. “I’m Enough (I Want More)” from the recent Cost of Living was galvanizing in concert as an assertion of our collective value and the fact that we all deserve more.
Ruiz understandably gets the attention in the room and in the media. She’s intense, charismatic, and when she talks between songs, she sounds real and thought-out. Nothing comes off as a pose or easy provocation. At the same time, her voice is a siren, an instrument of confrontation, particularly when she sings two- or three-note melodies at the top of her vocal range. That trait prompts comparisons to Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and when she sings en Español, she not only speaks to a smaller audience, but she gives the finger to those in power. Not only is she not talking to them; she’s specifically leaving them out of the conversation. For the hour or so that Downtown Boys were onstage, Gasa Gasa was a safe zone.
Ruiz is not the whole of the band, though. Sax player Emmett Fitzgerald blares along with her just as Lora Logic did with Styrene, and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco gives the songs a satisfying punk buzz. Frequently, the downfall of punk bands has been a lack of rhythmic imagination, but new drummer Joey Doubek rarely repeated a rhythm, and no song settled into anything as simple and clichéd as speedy, ahead-of-the-beat straight rock drive. Because of that, the songs has movement and space without sacrificing drive or purpose.
Still, songs rarely said anything as simple as “Those people suck.” Ruiz suggested that we “tax white supremacy 100 percent” in the introduction to “100 % Inheritance Tax,” and asked “When does a wall become just a wall?” in the introduction to Cost of Living’s “The Wall.” The latter, despite sharing a word with Trump’s favorite piece of architecture, is about the things that divide people, not the U.S. and Mexico. I don’t remember her mentioning Trump by name at all, though almost everything said was aimed at him.
The night’s curveball came in the form of a cover of New Order’s “Ceremony.” Ruiz doesn’t do Bernard Albrecht’s tentative melancholy, but the song’s dance rock lives close enough to Downtown Boys’ punk to peacefully coexist. More importantly, the song put the immediacy of Downtown Boys in another context. The struggle’s long with the odds against us, and each time Ruiz sang, “I'll break them down, no mercy shown / Heaven knows it’s got to be this time,” she added a note of tentative, bruised optimism. Sooner or later, right has to prevail, right? The song reminds us that hope, like the struggle itself, is its own reward, and a night with Downtown Boys felt like a good reason for both.