You Can’t Look Back on the Downtown Boys’ Wave of History

Cover photo courtesy of Dosavannah

Feature by Yasmine Hassan

Photo credit Downtown Boys  Bandcamp

Photo credit Downtown Boys Bandcamp

It’s a brisk October evening on Empire Street. There’s a couple of people huddled outside 115 Empire Street with their fists shoved into their pockets, the smoke from their cigarettes curling upwards into the darkness. A handful of folks have meandered inside, past the restaurant and bar, and into AS220’s main stage space. Though this night seems sort of slow, it has yet to truly begin. Tonight, Providence-based punk rockers The Downtown Boys are here, and they’re taking over.

It’s not every day that you hear the words "crisp intergalactic political punk” and “bilingual radical dance sax party” used to describe the same thing, but the Downtown Boys certainly fit the bill. As it turns out, their roots are just as mixed-up and far-reaching as their sound--in an interview with Paper, guitarist Joey DeFrancesco admits that the Downtown Boys’ origin story is a bit of a “piecemeal question”. The band members are from vastly different walks of life, but music, activism, and passion for the Providence community are all powerful common threads that bind together this brass-punk sextet.  

DeFrancesco actually had a brief stint with Internet notoriety before the band was conceived. A history major and workers’ rights organizer, he famously quit his room service job at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence on-camera, marching through accompanied by the hometown favorite What Cheer? Brigade, of which he was a member at the time. DeFrancesco, founding bassist Dan Schleifer, and drummer Norlan Olivo are actually all former Brigade members, which is where they met and got the idea to start the Downtown Boys. The other three original members of the radical sextet were all pulled from other spheres of DeFrancesco’s life--a Springsteen cover band from college, in the case of founding sax players Emmett Fitzgerald and Will Cioff.

In their eyes, the politics and message of punk rock are not to be divorced from the music and culture. And tonight, they’ve brought along a sick trio of openers with them, each from different corners of the scene.

A self-described “sick riff rock trio,” GNäRDS is the first act of the night, armed with a set of blisteringly brief songs--in the true nature of punk rock, of course. Characterized by urgent, insistent bass riffs, breakneck drumming, and reedy guitar melodies, their energy does a good job of warming up the sparse crowd for what is to come.

The trio are expressive performers, to say the least. Drummer Jamie Buckmaster’s face is almost never at rest, alternating between expressions that walk the line between energetic and manic, and singer/guitarist Peter Camerato contorts his mouth and squeezes his eyes closed as he hammers out chords. Bassist Abdul Hamid Sherzai seems more composed, hardly phased by his pounding riffs (though at one point, he manages to headbang his glasses off). Clad nonuniformly in flannel, scuffed sneakers, and old t-shirts, they feel like a time machine back to the early 2000s in the best kind of way. These are the guys that you could see working record shops and comic book stores by day, writing gritty punk-rock riffs by night, touring in a shitty van, and playing tiny, brilliant, ten-person shows on a chilly autumn night like this one.

Funeral Cone has the same punk spirit as GNäRDS but in a very different sense of the word. They are all grit and glitz and spikes and leather, with a sound that leans decidedly more hardcore. Despite the more intentionally-deconstructed feel, there’s no pretense or air of grandeur. In fact, they immediately establish a sense intimacy with the audience, setting up all of their equipment on the floor. And all at once, they’re there and they’re loud.

It feels close, and raw, and delightfully weird, but not necessarily in-your-face. For most of the time, lead singer Mike Leslie is facing his bandmates... even when he’s shrieking at the top of his lungs and twirling a holographic ribbon around himself. Their energy is infectious, though, and they’re never closed-off. It feels like a personal interaction between the band members, the audience halfway between observing and participating.

The room has been gradually filling up all night; slowly but surely, it has been packed with people of all sorts just in time for Shellshag, a two-piece punk outfit from Brooklyn. The band has been active for nearly fifteen years, and they’ve acquired a devoted following in that time. What stands out immediately is their unique stage props, despite the humble venue. In the time between their set and Funeral Cones’, they’ve managed to bring some sort of tower of speakers onstage. The DIY set-up is complete with two microphone stands, oriented so that guitarist John “Shellhead” Driver and percussionist Jennifer Shagawat (who, by the way, is wearing bells around her waist, arms, and legs) are facing each other the entire time.

Needless to say, there is powerful dynamic and visible connection between the two of them. Their stripped-down, poppy-but-utilitarian sound is accompanied by incredible energy and passion for their songs, their listeners, and their band. They leave the stage completely drenched in sweat, and leave the crowd abuzz and alive. Though one may have thought that the crowd for Shellshag was as full and lively as the venue was going to get, that actually couldn’t be farther from the truth.

A few members of the Downtown Boys (one of whom, the bandana-clad drummer, Norlan Olivo, was spotted doing pull-ups from the ceiling beams earlier in the night) mill about after Shellshag’s set, socializing and moving equipment. But they’re all so different from each other that to a first-time listener, it actually isn’t completely clear who the band members are until they pull away from their separate spheres of conversation and activity, and make their way onstage to begin soundcheck.

Olivo is similarly entrenched in the Providence community, as a live-in artist at the AS220 Mercantile Block residential space. Having moved to the Downcity neighborhood from South Providence (and originally, the Bronx), he’s an alumnus of AS220’s Youth Program. Along with music, he’s heavily involved in the AS220 photo program, as well as New Urban Arts, a program for local high schoolers that touts itself as a space for “arts mentoring, creative practicing, community building, [and] world changing.” Schleifer actually teaches there, as well.

The crowd seems a little younger and a little browner by the time frontwoman Victoria Ruiz climbs up onto the stage. The band itself certainly has more of an intentional sort of done-up “look” going on than some of the opening bands, be it for the sake of individualism, an artist’s sensibility, or simply the desire to take up as much space as possible. Olivo has pulled his red banana up over his face, á là las zapatistas of Mexico; guitarist Joey DeFrancesco’s lips are painted a punchy shade of red; Ruiz oozes futuristic cool, her bottom lids smoked out with blue eyeshadow.

DeFrancesco and Ruiz were brought together through their shared experience working at the Renaissance and subsequent stints in labor organizing. Ruiz, interestingly enough, isn’t originally from this area--or even this side of the country. Raised by her mother and grandmother in a suburban Mexican-American household near San Jose, CA, she came out to the East Coast to study economics and architecture at Columbia. Since relocating to Providence, she’s spent time as a public defender and organizer, and was eventually invited to join the band by DeFrancesco after designing their logo… and screaming along in the crowd at some of their first few shows.

Photo credit  Jen Cray

Photo credit Jen Cray

Ruiz describes the band’s philosophy best in her own words in a conversation with The Media. “Our bands exist because we want to use music and create moments with people to inspire and motivate us all to confront issues of racism, classism, queer phobia, police brutality, capitalism, and masculinity in our community. All of our songs are in direct response to institutionalized injustices. Individually, we are all connected to various issues in our community… We are bilingual with the intention to speak to as many people as possible,” she adds, emphasizes the “political decision” the band has made by writing lyrics that alternate between Spanish and English.

After an incredibly tight, methodical soundcheck (“Could we get more sax?” requests Ruiz “More of my vocals?”), the band wastes no time in getting things going.

Why is it that we never have enough with just what’s inside of us? Today, today we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown, we are smart! That third thing is only fear, push it away!

Ruiz begins with an ad-libbed version of the intro monologue of Monstro, their breakout hit; sax crescendos in the background, coupled with punchy chords from DeFrancesco.

During the mic check, her speaking voice is noticeably youthful and, in a sense, rather girlish. Solely based on that, it might catch you off guard to hear that she’s 28-years-old. When she performs, it’s like an all-consuming transformation--she shrieks at the audience, and her voice strains from the intensity of her message and passion.

Monstro que come los muertos / Monstro que tiene la culpa / Monstro que mames externo / Y te mato, monstro

(Monster that eats the dead / Monster that is guilty / Monster that messes with me externally / And I kill you, monster)

She’s angry, and fearless--and brown, and smart--and the crowd can’t get enough of it. When they play, they engage with the audience in a dialogue of sorts. They all visibly feed off of the crowd’s energy, Ruiz acting as a mouthpiece for the band; she alternates between English and Spanish, screaming about pain and change and revolution. Incredibly, they’re by no means blinded by their ferocity, and they don’t come off as distant or inaccessible when they’re speaking so intelligently and powerfully about societal injustices.

They care deeply about their fans, too, particularly those who are perhaps most vulnerable. At one point, Ruiz addresses the moshers in the crowd, pointing out that’s it’s fine if “[they] want to push each other around,” but that some people also “want to be in the front without being pushed around.” She then invites at least a dozen people onto the stage; they obscure the view of the band themselves, but it’s obvious that the Downtown Boys find it more important that people can come to dance and be close without endangering themselves  or feeling uncomfortable.

They wanna make you sing and dance--but, as Ruiz points out during the show, “A veces, tienes que gritar y llorar” (“Sometimes, you have to shout and cry”) for what you believe in. Needless to say, the intensity of their values is what shines through the most. At heart, they’re crusaders against “the prison-industrial complex, racism, queerphobia, capitalism, fascism, [and] boredom” first, and artists second.

After speaking grandly about futurism and outer space as a way to break free from systems of white supremacy, Ruiz circles back to speaking out against local injustices--namely, the recent police conflict and subsequent student protests in Pawtucket. The opening sax riff of “Wave Of History” blares as Ruiz regards the crowd.

“This one goes out to Tolman High School.”


Catch The Downtown Boys at the New Urban Arts Benefit on November 20th.

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