Real talk, guys: if forced to name my favorite concert-going experience of all time, I’d probably have to throw all pretense to the wind and say it was Night One of the 2004 Q101 Block Party. The headlining band was The Presidents of the United States of America, who were enjoying an improbable extension to the 15 minutes of fame they experienced in the mid 90s, thanks to the flurry of interest surrounding their comeback album. But they don’t even factor into this. The band that warmed up the crowd for them was Local H, fresh off of Whatever Happened to PJ Soles?. It was a dynamite show, one that got me reacquainted with the band after a long period of estrangement following the end of their major label days. But even THAT’s not what made this show so singularly memorable.
No, the band that forever crystallized this night in the gauzy amber of my memory was the opening act, Sponge. For those of you who are a little hazy on your post-grunge one-hit wonders, Sponge was a group out of Detroit whose major claim to fame was the lead single off their debut album, Plowed. I’d acquired their first two CDs at a garage sale sometime during my second year in college and had developed a pretty serious soft-spot, particularly for the unruly but occasionally brilliant mess that was their ill-fated sophomore set, Wax Ecstatic.
Sponge had the unenviable task of playing to a still loosely packed crowd that was mostly just killing time until the other bands took the stage. After knocking out two or three songs for an obviously indifferent audience, frontman Vinnie Dombroski dragged the mic stand to the edge of the stage and said, “Okay, anyone out there who’s got one of our albums, come on up front.” I cast a nervous glance to the left and right of me and, seeing no resistance, wove my way to the front of the crowd with my friends in tow. All told, there were probably no more than 30 of us. Dombroski jumped off the stage, crossed through the photo pit, and, with the help of the burliest fan in the bunch, hauled himself up on the railing, where he stayed for pretty much the duration of his set, only returning to the stage to close things down with (you guessed it) “Plowed.”
The intimacy of that act was incredible. I’ve since seen better performances by bands that I more closely identify with, but nothing is ever likely to top that feeling of having one of my pet bands play an entire show for me and a handful of other fans.
One of the songs they played was “Rotting Piñata,” the title track to their debut album and, for my money, the finest in their catalogue. I have memories of blasting the song from my dorm room on the first warm day of spring, windows and sliding glass door opened to the outside world while I danced like a maniac to its joyful opening guitar strains. Like many of the songs on their debut, the lyrics are deceptively heavy. Dombroski contemplates the fate of all flesh with an unsparing eye for detail — insides spilling across the ground, crows eating eyeballs, a wreck of human remains left to decay beneath an uncaring sun. The grimness of the subject matter gains an added emotional punch from one of Dombroski’s most forceful vocal deliveries. The lyrics aren’t so much sung as shouted, his bandmates’ backing vocals either trailing behind or rushing ahead of his. For a song that was surely engineered to the smallest detail by some label exec hoping to create the next Stone Temple Pilots, it feels very rough, even spontaneous.
Looking back on my young adult Sponge fixation, I’d have to admit that part of the appeal was a certain sense of exclusivity — the fact that, by the early aughts, they weren’t a band too many people were talking or thinking about helped to make them more uniquely mine. While I’m still fond of their work (Wax Ecstatic, especially, is a strange, cool little record), it’s not something I find myself revisiting with regularity these days. But no matter how much has changed for me personally since my twenties, I’ll always have the Q101 Block Party, and I’ll always have “Rotting Piñata.”