A decade ago, a Phoenix band by the scandalous name of Andrew Jackson Jihad released their second full-length album “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World.” It was a shocking stab of folk-punk sound, angry and fast while still maintaining an introspective, melodic undertone that made it totally unique and instantly addictive. Nobody was spared from lead guitarist and vocalist Sean Bonnette’s sharp, scathingly accusatory lyrics, from his own stepfather to the Mrs. Robinson of Simon & Garfunkel’s track of the same name.
While some of that rage has diminished in the ten years since that album’s release, the band continues to produce emotional, one-of-a-kind music — just with a touch more sophistication. Even the band’s name has matured: in 2016, it was announced that Andrew Jackson Jihad would officially change their name to AJJ, a decision fueled by the disrespect to the Muslim faith invoked by the inclusion of “jihad” in the name. Their 2016 album released under this new moniker, “Bible 2,” reflected the step towards self-reflection and growth, incorporating more serious themes and a more melancholy tone. However, 2017 has been an angry year that demands an equally angry setlist, which AJJ delivers by revisiting “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World” with an anniversary tour that proves that growth can still be grungy and furious.
The Nov. 9 show might have been an acoustic set, but the Motorco venue was filled with sound from start to finish. Bonnette and Ben Gallaty, who rocks the double bass like no one else in the business, had incredible stamina, powering through the entirety of “People Who Can People” without ever dropping a chord or getting tongue-tied. Listening to Bonnette scream-sing the lyrics to “Brave as a Noun,” it was impossible to believe that an entire decade had passed since the album’s debut. Bonnette sounded just as righteously angry and soulful as he did ten years ago, shouting into the microphone in a voice that conveyed outrage while staying impressively melodic. He and Gallaty played expertly together, needing only a quick glance before launching into a perfectly synchronized run that pushed a tempo of 200 beats per minute. Their expertise with their respective instruments was evident onstage, from Gallaty’s ability to switch between plucking and bowing without missing a beat to Bonnette playing clean chords on his battered acoustic guitar in spite of the sweat droplets flying off the strings.
After playing through “People Who Can Eat People” — covering every song beautifully, particularly “A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit,” which showed off Bonnette’s smooth vocals — AJJ shifted to their more recent discography. The transition from the crunchy, rapid-fire guitar of their second album to the more sustained strumming of “Bible 2” created a bit of tonal whiplash, but Bonnette kept the set from ever feeling sluggish with his passionate playing. The crowd’s enthusiasm never waned throughout the night, especially after the band finally played fan favorite “Backpack” from “Bible 2,” a chilling number that sounded even better live than on the album. All of the songs from “Bible 2” were superior to their recordings: AJJ is a band whose music demands to be listened to several times before the lyrics can sink in and the sometimes chaotic instrumentals can be appreciated. Getting to hear these newer songs with such clarity and intimacy added depth to the lyrics and stripped the music down to a bare, brilliant minimum.
“Junkie Church” and “Big Bird” came towards the end of the set, perfectly complementing the hectic pace of the opening numbers. The former had an incredible chorus conducive to audience singalongs, while the latter was another fan favorite that had the entire venue on its feet. Although AJJ managed to cover almost every request screamed from the audience, there were a few key songs that went unplayed — “Self Esteem” being the most egregious absence from the setlist — but given the band’s extensive discography and the fact that this tour is fundamentally a celebration of “People Who Can Eat People”’s anniversary, the missing songs were only briefly mourned before AJJ launched into another great number.
The night ended with “American Body Rentals,” a 50-second number that was funny, fast and fitting for a closer. Short, punchy numbers are a trademark of AJJ, and this little ditty distilled the band’s essence into a one-verse song that is weird, slightly off-putting and totally distinct. AJJ may be growing up, but they still know how to let loose, get weird and put on an unforgettable show with little more than a guitar, a double bass and lots of energy.