Chaos in Tejas Leaves a Trail of Bruises and Scars

The scar ran from behind his right ear to the center of his cheek, pink and waxy in contrast with his dyed black hair. His skinny arms were covered with crude tattoos, and he was wearing a black T-shirt inside out, black jeans and black boots. He stood about 6-foot-1, which left me eye level with the scar. He caught me looking.

"You can touch it if you want."

The scar once looked and felt worse, but it healed nicely; the skin has tried to forget the trauma and blend in. By the time I saw it, outside Austin's Mohawk last Friday night, it looked like a fault line, the site of a seismic shift that is now dormant again. I traced the indent of the scar lightly with the tip of my index finger, and all of the sudden our interaction felt a little too personal.

This guy — we'll call him Sheldon — traveled here with friends for Chaos in Tejas, an annual punk and hardcore festival in Austin, where scars and bruises and tattoos signify a larger tribal network. It's a week of influx for punk and hardcore fans from all over the country, so much so that clubs have to put up signs warning against "spanging" (panhandling), and you're constantly stepping over someone's dog in a bandanna.

Sheldon acquired his scar at a show in Louisville, Kentucky a few years back, when a fight broke out in front of the stage. He tried to intervene and help a friend who'd gotten caught up in the fray. Sheldon didn't realize he'd been sliced with the dull blade of a box cutter until a friend pointed out all the blood on his shirt.

"I didn't even feel it," he said softy. "A few inches lower and I probably would have bled to death."

When I first noticed Sheldon sitting outside of Mohawk that night, I thought he couldn't have been older than 18.

"I just turned 21."

And how long have you been traveling?

"Since I was 15."

I spotted him the next day, inside Beerland for Dallas' Power Trip, swirling around a mosh pit with all the other fans getting their rage and angst out. It helped that Power Trip frontman Riley Gale is a one-man wind turbine, always moving, kicking, punching, propelling the crowd with him.

When it started back in 2002, Chaos in Tejas, then called Timmy Fest, was designed for obscure hardcore bands from Finland or reunited acts flown in from Japan. In the past few years, though, the fest has broadened its scope. This year saw underground hip-hop (Main Attrakionz) and dance music (Big Freedia), as well as more accessible acts like Best Coast.

Still, there was a certain uniform among those collective fans devoted to living outside the "system." I suppose the identifiable label is "crust punk," although they might prefer another tag. Large groups of kids with various backpatches advertising their tribe crowded the streets, and every so often a guy in a studded vest would jostle you out of the way, then spit in the street, as if to reiterate his anarchistic worldview. It made me think of something fest organizer Timmy Hefner mentioned back in 2009, when I interviewed him for the Austin Chronicle.

"I always want [the fest] to be more than getting drunk and watching bands. I know that's essentially what's going to happen anyway. I mean, I can try to get the Zapatistas to come set up a table, but, you know, there are still going to be drunken idiots."

In 2012, Chaos in Tejas still has its share of drunken idiots, but beyond the showcasing of older punk and hardcore bands with devoted followings, it's also become a place to find new bands — like Australia's Royal Headache, who opened for New Zealand trio the Clean at Club de Ville on Saturday. They weren't on my radar, but I went home with their self-titled debut that night, 26 minutes of punk-soul ecstasy that I haven't been able to disentangle myself from since. And that's another promising factor of the fest: I saw many folks lined up at various merch tables to buy vinyl, not CDs.

And what of the Clean? I was sort of shocked they gathered such a large crowd. You rarely hear a contemporary band cite them as an influence, and yet their unique sound has still made it into the fiber of modern pop. You sensed it as they ran through the "hits," and despite guitarist David Kilgour having to re-tune his guitar after every song, the trio still managed to nail down "Point That Thing Somewhere Else," "Billy Two" and incite a mosh pit for "Tally Ho!"

It was also a weekend where you could see Massachusetts hardcore band Hoax play in a recycling center where the crowd was literally trashing the place. Or you could happen upon Mexico's extreme thrashers Morbosidad and feel a bit of nausea creep up. They were so loud that my sternum rattled, and yet there was something exhilarating in knowing music can still have a physical effect as well as an emotional one.

After returning to Dallas, I noticed a few random bruises on my legs. I ran my hand over one on my right ankle, not sure where I got it. There was swelling, and a purplish-blue hue that signified impact. I smiled: a souvenir of the weekend.

 
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