Most concert promoters will tell you package nostalgia tours are almost guaranteed to draw a sizable crowd. That’s why such big shows pop up throughout the year—i.e., Hair Nation, a day of ’80s sleaze rock, and Freestyle Fest, bringing old-school hip-hop to the Queen Mary—catering to those who prefer to listen to the tunes that take them back to the days when they were skinnier and had fewer responsibilities. And as the wheel of life continues to revolve, it is now the turn of emo.
On April 8 and 9, the inaugural When We Were Young festival takes over the Observatory. Headlined by widely worshipped former Smiths front man Morrissey, the event features some of the most recognizable emo and pop-punk names from the 1990s and early 2000s: AFI, Cage the Elephant, Taking Back Sunday, Alkaline Trio, Senses Fail, the Get Up Kids and Saves the Day.
There are also a few bands that add a bit of eclecticism. South Bay’s Descendents formed in the ’70s, but, as punk-esque scenes have come and gone, these guys have remained at least semi-popular. “When we started, we were just kids,” says drummer Bill Stevenson. “It is kind of amazing how long we’ve stayed together.”
The industry has changed almost beyond recognition in the nearly four decades the Descendents have existed. But last year, the band released its seventh full-length album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, which also happened to be its first in 12 years. Stevenson says that has more to do with the fact that four guys in the band don’t operate on any kind of schedule anymore—now writing, recording and touring when they feel like it—than a response to the truth that records don’t sell like they used to. “All we’re trying to do is play songs that mean something to us,” Stevenson says. “Whether the album sells for $10 or someone downloads it for free, it doesn’t really change our part of it at all.”
Thankfully, there’s still an audience for the Descendents’ brand of quirky, melodic, super-fun punk that’s snappy but doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I think that bands get worse as they go,” Stevenson says. “I don’t know why that is, exactly—there are different theories about that. . . . So the fact that our new record was so well-received and so well-reviewed, and the fans really enjoyed it and it sold as well as it could in this day and age, that meant a lot to me because it meant that people still think that we’re worthy of their ear for a few minutes.”
Their Epitaph Records label mate, Torrance’s Joyce Manor, have been knocking about for nine years, putting out four albums, the most recent of which was last year’s Cody. Singer/guitarist Barry Johnson says that, after years in other punk bands, the members of Joyce Manor intended to be a more melodic indie band. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, their return to their punk roots couldn’t be denied. “It’s always been about trying to make a song that’s as energetic as possible but also as melodic as possible,” the front man says.
Joyce Manor received some attention around 2014 when Johnson essentially banned stage diving at their gigs. While the act had for so long been part-and-parcel of the punk scene, Johnson says, the responsibility he feels toward his fans took precedence over the desire to go batshit crazy. “I just think that our shows got too crazy,” he says. “We have a lot of younger female fans, and they were leaving in ambulances every night. It was hard to draw a soft line with that kind of thing: ‘All right, guys, let’s go fucking crazy, but let’s also not send anyone to the hospital.’ Which, you know, you hope could be the case every night, but people are fucking idiots.”
Both Stevenson and Johnson admit to having a whole list of bands that they want to check out during When We Were Young, both listing the Alkaline Trio and Choking Victim as potential highlights. Without prompting, they also big-up each other’s bands.
Johnson says Joyce Manor will bang out as many songs as they can in the allotted time, as is typical for a punk band at a festival. Similarly, Stevenson says the Descendents’ set will span their career in as extensive a manner as possible. “We don’t have albums where every song is good, and then other albums where every song is crappy,” Stevenson says. “To me, each of our albums has a handful of songs that are worthy of being played live. I think we’ve been rehearsing 39 songs: 11 new ones and the rest older.”
The 30 years between the formation of the Descendents and Joyce Manor is evidence of just how far pop-punk and emo reaches. While When We Were Young is nostalgia-based, the event doesn’t feel cheesy and certainly not irrelevant. These featured artists are still putting out new material while also performing fan favorites, and that’s a wonderful balance.
When We Were Young at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com/event/whenwewereyoung. Sat.-Sun., April 8-9, noon. $60-$100. All ages.