‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’: Waco’s underground punk scene stays put post-pandemic

“Progressive, post-emo punk” band Rad Dragon is at the forefront of the genre’s survival in Waco after the pandemic nearly slayed live music. Photo courtesy of Rad Dragon

By Emma Weidmann | Arts and Life Editor

You won’t find them playing at the Silos or on campus, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

In Waco’s garages, bars and backyards is an underground community of punk musicians who play some dark, macabre and gritty music. Donning lots of leather and pierced by steel, they may look undead, but the scene is anything but buried.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took an ax to the knees of live music, Waco’s punk scene wasn’t alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, consumer spending on live music decreased by 45% compared to pre-pandemic revenue, and the places that once provided a platform for punk had to keep closed to keep safe.

Stan Wojciechowski, owner of local record store Spin Connection, said he used to welcome 80 to 90 people per show inside the store. But once the pandemic hit, what was once “quite an active place” could no longer be a venue. And with a boom in record sales since then, Spin Connection needed the room to store the sought-after vinyls.

Though Spin Connection has hosted two shows this year, the scene has moved elsewhere. However, Josh Riddle — guitarist and vocalist of the band Rad Dragon — said Waco’s bands remain grateful for the home the local record store provided.

“That was the spot,” Riddle said. “When we started playing, you’d go out there. All the underground rock shows were there, and the community was really awesome. Stan and Alicia were just so welcoming [to] let us use their space to express ourselves and to feel community.”

Riddle said COVID-19 nearly killed Waco’s punk scene, throwing a curveball in plans for a second Garage Fest — a two-day punk extravaganza held out of Riddle’s garage with 14 artists and a turnout in the hundreds — and an East Side Music Festival in East Waco.

“Everything was so touch and go from there,” Riddle said. “Almost a year later, people were like, ‘Hey man, we’re thinking about doing a show.’ Maybe we would play the show. We’d mask up and go out. And, of course, people didn’t really want to go get in the mosh pit too close to people, so there would be smaller shows. And then we wouldn’t get anyone else putting shows together for months.”

Riddle said Waco’s punk scene is slowly but surely crawling back as new bands pop up and local venues continue to open their doors to the rockers. His short list of good spots to hear post-pandemic punk includes Cultivate 7Twelve, Brotherwell Brewing and Truelove, but the real digs are the DIY venues — skate parks, garages and warehouses rented out by the bands themselves.

“We played in a warehouse once that someone rented out for a night,” Riddle said. “The skate park — you know, you just get in touch with the city and tell them to keep the utilities on. You could play wherever as long as the drive is there.”

Sul Ross Skate Park off Waco Drive is one of those places where you can hear the “progressive, post-emo punk” roar of Rad Dragon.

That’s quite the specific label, but “just ‘punk rock’ is good too,” Riddle said.

What exactly does that mean? According to Riddle, the biggest difference between emo and punk is “how the energy is manifested.” Punk rock is “high octane” and is typically faster, while emo has a lot of “emotional potency,” is more sonically rich and is more melodically appealing. It’s the difference between punching a wall and sliding down it.

In Waco, Riddle has become sort of a punk mentor and muse for younger bands. Isaac Joiner, bassist of the “post-hardcore/emo” band Bedtime Stories, said Riddle’s songwriting abilities were “shockingly good,” and he recommended Rad Dragon’s “Sophomore Syndrome” as an introductory song to the genre.

Joiner said part of what Riddle does well is that punk is an emotional release, and he’s able to tap into those feelings. From there, the environment at shows is a safe space to let it all out.

“I think whenever people look at music that’s less accessible for them, that’s harder to listen to, they might not understand the use of harsh vocals or things like that,” Joiner said. “I think they sometimes think that that’s the mentality the people who listen to that music are constantly in — whereas, these shows that we do, it’s like that’s a space for people to release or feel those emotions that you typically aren’t able to within everyday life.”

That often comes with some misconceptions. Carter Patzke, drummer of Bedtime Stories, said it can sound scary on the surface, but punk music and the people who play it aren’t scarier than any country band.

“It’s a lot of loud sounds and screaming and people going crazy, so a lot of people aren’t into it at the beginning,” Patzke said. “But a lot of that is just passion, expression. It’s all — not violent — but super heavy and crazy. … But it’s all just because it’s fun.”

Bedtime Stories’ next show is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cultivate 7Twelve, and they will will be joined by bands from Denton and Austin. Because Waco is roughly equidistant from the Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Riddle said that brings a lot of opportunities for growth for Waco’s bands and makes the city a natural stop on the way.

“We’re getting more diverse artists and more diverse sounds into the city we live in just by going out and meeting those people in our very close neighbor cities,” Riddle said. “I think the potential that’s there makes Waco a really good spot now, and even better in the future, as well. People continue to build those relationships and get some cool artists into town.”

Through the challenges it has overcome and the stereotypes it faces, Waco’s punk scene has become a tight-knit community of musicians and fans — one in which Ethan Corbett, guitarist and vocalist of Bedtime Stories, said he’s met some of his closest friends.

The camaraderie is what Riddle believes makes the scene so remarkable. He said having a crowd of punk music lovers at a show is a special thing.

“What’s really cool about Waco is that a lot of times, it’s such an intimate experience without having to force it to be an intimate experience,” Riddle said. “That’s just the way it is here most of the time, and I think that’s something that’s really special to a scene like ours.”

If there’s one thing to know about the scene, it’s that punk is all-inclusive. With the radical acceptance of people of all races, genders and sexualities that the genre has always championed, Waco’s punk scene is no different.

“Back when punk shows were first starting from underground, I think it’s always just been a bunch of misfits and outcasts that are constantly surrounded by people that don’t accept them,” Patzke said. “Everyone’s like, ‘I want to accept these people because I know how it feels to be belittled and pushed away.’ … If we’re in the same punk show, we could not have much in common at all, but the thing is, we are both here for a reason. … We can bond over that. And I think that’s kind of a collective energy: This is a group of misfits and outcasts, and this is their sanctuary.”