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Dismemberment Plan, D.C. post-punk idols, reunite behind 'Emergency & I' reissue

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 7:34 AM

As if being invited to a super hush-hush reunion show isn't enough, Jason Caddell offers me his leftovers.

"Cold tater tots?" he asks, weaving through the crowd at Galaxy Hut, the cozy Arlington nightspot where his band, the Dismemberment Plan, is about to launch a hotly anticipated reunion tour with a secret Saturday-night gig.

Tables and chairs have been cleared out to make room for 80 invited guests - not so much a dance floor as a space for oh-my-God-I-haven't-seen-you-in-10-years hugs. The Dismemberment Plan's members aren't the only ones reuniting tonight.

Fans will converge in much greater numbers when the Washington post-punk quartet performs this week in celebration of "Emergency & I," its increasingly legendary 1999 album, just reissued on vinyl.

Among the performances: a Thursday appearance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," a Friday show at the Black Cat (sold-out) and a double-header at the 9:30 Club on Saturday and Sunday (also sold-out). Then up the East Coast (Philly, Boston, New York), over to Japan (Kyoto, Nagoya, Tokyo) and back to the states (Seattle, Chicago).

After hours of practice in drummer Joe Easley's basement, tonight is the final run-through.

"It's kind of like kid baseball," frontman Travis Morrison tells me before the show. "Once the games start, no more practice."

At 8 p.m. sharp, Morrison and his bandmates claw through the crowd, take their places in front of Galaxy Hut's broad front window and dive into a 21-song dress rehearsal.

Just like the Toyota Priuses and Blue Top cabs zipping down Wilson Boulevard on the opposite side of the glass, memories start racing past.

From its 1993 formation to its 2003 breakup, the Dismemberment Plan was a culty blog band before we knew what a blog was. I gleefully drank the Kool-Aid: one packet of Prince, two cups Fugazi, one gallon of De La Soul, and stir.

And while many fans' devotion to the group borders on religious, I must express mine in the form of disclosure: In my college years, the Plan invited my old band on tour. I turned 21 opening up for them in Hoboken, N.J. And when they split up, bassist Eric Axelson sold us their tour van, a 2001 Ford Econoline with a CD player and working AC.

But we roll deeper than that. The Dismemberment Plan opened the third punk show I ever saw - a barely attended gig in December 1995, the waning days of the old 9:30 Club.

Named after a Bill Murray line in "Groundhog Day," the band looked defiantly uncool, convulsing onstage in pleated Dockers and untucked Oxfords as if it had come straight to 930 F St. after a highly caffeinated afternoon of data entry.

The jittery post-punk made me feel as if adulthood was a place where awkward people could actually thrive.

I'm hardly the only one who grew up with these wonderfully cracked pop songs. Pitchfork, the influential indie-rock Web site, recently gave the reissue of "Emergency & I" a perfect 10.0 score, saying, "we've all used it for breakups, for family emergencies, for nights when we're feeling low and can't quite settle on the source."

But my love for the band wasn't for its records so much as its live shows - sweaty, jostling affairs where teenagers who liked the Roots or the Talking Heads or Roni Size or Brainiac could learn to dance.

The suits at Interscope Records must have noticed this when they signed the Dismemberment Plan in 1998, moments before Napster stuck its needle in the record industry's bloated bubble. The band pocketed a cash advance, plus a $50,000 recording budget for two albums, but was dropped the next year when a merger between Universal (Interscope's parent label) and PolyGram threw the label into chaos. Instead of landing them on MTV, "Emergency & I" was quietly released on DeSoto Records, an indie label run by members of Washington post-punk forebears Jawbox.

Underground devotion ensued, but after a final album, 2001's "Change," the Plan threw in the towel. Morrison would immediately embark on a solo career - one that would become a cautionary tale about the metastasizing influence of the Internet. His 2004 solo album, "Travistan," received an infamous 0.0 grade from Pitchfork, a review that, in 2006, Morrison told The Post had a "catastrophic effect" on his musical career.

Since then, he's taken up singing in a church choir in New York, where he now resides and works for the Huffington Post. Everyone else still lives in the Washington area. Axelson works for Rock the Vote, Caddell is a freelance audio engineer and Easley works for NASA.

Barefoot, sporting shorts and a T-shirt at Galaxy Hut, Easley presumably did not come straight from work.

Chad Clark, one of the producers of "Emergency & I," arrives a few songs late into the set, and Morrison yelps as if a paramedic has arrived on the scene.

"Chad!" he hollers."The first song, my strap broke five times!"

The show is off to a rowdy start, but aside from a defective guitar strap and some synthesizer glitches, the band sounds well oiled, dishing out weird tunes about the weirdness of Washington. "Doing the Standing Still" mocks D.C.'s perennially flat-footed rock crowds, "Ellen & Ben" cites a morning spent watching "The McLaughlin Group," and "Spider in the Snow," a song that mentions a temp job on K Street, still contains Morrison's most enduring lyric: "The only thing worse than bad memories are no memories at all."

After Caddell's keyboard ekes out a song's final chord, he stretches his arms and shares his pain: "I'm old, man!"

Morrison quips back, "Jason, you're a hog . . . a handsome older gentlemen. Everyone say, 'Jason, you're a hog!' "

(Everyone: "JASON, YOU'RE A HOG!")

Morrison is just as garrulous in song, and tonight he's coughing up his lyric book in a swarm of altered shapes - somewhere between an auctioneer and Bob Dylan. During the bridge of "OK, Jokes Over," he chants the refrain to "Fembot," a tune by Swedish pop singer Robyn. I've heard Morrison pull this trick countless times, inserting little fragments of OutKast, Britney Spears or Lauryn Hill into the clatter.

When it's over, 80 voices explode in a cheer that seems to have been saved for the end of the show. There's no encore, but the crowd lingers for hours, repeatedly snaring the band members in conversation as they unsuccessfully try to schlep their gear out to the curb.

Nobody ever wants to leave a place like this - a room giddy on the fumes of old memories and new ones, too.

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