Joe Garrigan and the free rock show

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Joel Darden (foreground) leads the Kneads at a free rock show at New York Pizza, where audiences seem to be getting younger and younger.

by Brian Clarey

In a small booth at New York Pizza, before the free rock show on Greensboro’s venerable Tate Street, Joe Garrigan begins counting backwards.

“Before the Kneads,” he says, referencing the band he’s playing with for tonight’s CD release show, “I was in Decoration Ghost. The Tiny Meteors. Golden Dawn — that was a Winston-Salem band. I was in Taija Rae with Kim Walker — she’s playing bass in Horizontal Hold tonight. There was the Scholarships….

“You know,” he says, “I have a spreadsheet with all the names and dates I can send you.”

Garrigan has been a mainstay behind the drum kit for at least 25 years in the Triad, earning the nickname the “Angry Tomato” after years of shirtless drumming in his raw, sunburned Irish skin.

“I would say I’ve been in 37 to 43 bands,” he finishes. “All in Winston-Salem and Greensboro.”

Now into his forties, a parent — his kids go to school with mine — and a professional with a full-time day gig, Garrigan still spends his Saturday nights in rock rooms like the one at the back of New York Pizza, carrying on the tradition of independent music and the free rock show at the lower tiers of the scene.

Opening act LeWeekend, a Raleigh three-piece that shares the Potluck label with all the bands on the slate, wraps a set that at times sounds like a jangly version of Weezer, others like a more evolved Rush. Then Garrigan moves his own stool behind the kit, switches out the snare and cymbals and tilts the big tom at an angle.

It’s mostly dudes in their twenties and thirties in the space, with one booth taken over by a few families that have brought their young children. As the Kneads set opens, three 9-year-old girls position themselves in front of singer and bassist Michael Joncas and immediately begin choreographing dance moves.

Garrigan leans into the snare and high-hat with metronomic precision as guitarist Joel Darden chops away.

There is no room for cynicism at the free rock show, no place for criticism or complaint. Don’t like the music? Got your refund right here. The free rock show is more about a sense of commonality — both in aesthetic and socioeconomic status. It’s a listening room where anyone who wants to hear a jam can just walk in off the street and indulge, a house of dues where bands can bolster up a fan base, work out new material or, in this case, sell CDs — the Kneads new work, Letting You Let Me Down, is in ample supply along with T-shirts, stickers and buttons at the merch table. And, by definition, it’s free.

You know how many free rock shows Joe Garrigan has played?

“A better question is: Have I ever made any money playing rock music?” Garrigan says. “The answer is: Every once in a while. Every once in a blue moon. You can make beer money, food money, gas money or a little that goes toward the band pot. But you don’t make any money that stays in your pocket.

“Bands and music are a luxury item. Money and time,” he continues. “I can give them a free show, and maybe they can buy the CD. Maybe they can buy the T-shirt. At the very least, they can come out and listen.”

Late in the set, as promised, the Kneads tear into “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a 1985 post-punk dirge by the Replacements that by 1998 had been sanitized into a teen movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. It plays well, even with the 9-year-olds.

After the set, Garrigan — sweaty but not shirtless — deconstructs his drums and stands on the corner of Tate and Walker streets in the warm night, catching up with other veterans of the scene and newcomers alike.

When Horizontal Hold begins to fill the room with Zappa-esque guitar work, tonal synth and the melodic basslines of his former bandmate, Garrigan moves inside and posts up at the front of the stage — not really a stage at all but a corner of the room cordoned off by amps, pedal boxes and mic cords.

And there he’ll stay, for the rest of the set.