Churchill’s Hideaway, a pub in Miami, Florida, regularly stows a phalange of outcast dregs and miscreant weirdos, as well as some fairly normalized football and cricket fans on game days. This dive bar gem located amidst the perceived glamour of Miami amazes newcomers and frequenters revel in its lawlessness and daily exhibition of live music. During every Art Basel there’s an offered alternative to high cost and pretension, and Churchill’s is often the ideal site.
Six hours north of Miami, Tampa has been producing some of the harshest, most innovative punk music since the early 2000s – wrought from all the boredom and alienation that cities like Tampa have to offer. The noisy, combustible hardcore of Cult Ritual, Neon Blud’s female-fronted, haunting heaviness – the city has bred bands that depend wholly on themselves and each other. Merchandise is another Tampa band with a strong DIY punk backbone, but this time dress with tactlie warmth.
Headed by vocalist Carson Cox and guitarist Dave Vassalotti, Merchandise’s latest full-length releases – Strange Songs (In the Dark) and Children of Desire – contain emotionally yielding ballads buttressed by clamorous, noisy fuzz. Cox’s breathy lows and near-orchestral high notes blend with Vassalotti’s distorted, nebulous guitar work in a way that produces new pop. Heartfelt, sad, and redeeming, Merchandise represents a romanticism that’s been prey to bouts of irony and jadedness, but also – and more importantly – an ethos of doing what you feel is artistically right regardless of your context.
Organized by local promoter Andrew McLees and sponsored by Ad Hoc, Self-Titled Magazine, Grolsch and Sailor Jerry, the show was a collection of Florida bands, free drinks, Churchill’s locals - a cathartic respite from the Basel-induced traffic and strict door policies. The openers were all Tri-County (the area of land that starts in Miami and ends in West Palm Beach) locals: Li’l Daggers, a Miami-based trio with an organ-inflected sound you’d hear spilling from a darkened garage; The West Palm Beach-formed Band in Heaven, whose seamy, nightmarish din only kind of revokes their namesake; and Teepee, a Miami outfit headed by Erix S. Laurent (and for whom Andrew McLees plays lead guitar) who turned out billowing, Spaghetti Western-style goth rock.
Merchandise played last, employing a drum machine reminiscent of Suicide (but with more chimes) and delivering a stripped-down version of their studio selves, as they often do. Though hoarse from a three a.m. show at the much chicer Vagabond the night before, Cox belted with his signature, downcast abandon as he motioned almost pleadingly to the crowd. Despite the performance’s high emotion, the Merchandise guys cracked jokes and smiled at an overeager, clearly underage kid who couldn’t stop throwing up the horns and attempting to make his way onstage.