When the word “emo” last buzzed around the music press, it referred to guitar-centric bands that went from driving drafty vans between VFW halls to dominating MTV during the mid-2000s death throes of “TRL” — the outsize goth-punks My Chemical Romance, the wordy and ambitious Fall Out Boy. In the past year or so, the term has popped up again, this time in conversations about young, up-from-the-basement acts like Philadelphia’s crunching Modern Baseball and Worcester’s hooky the Hotelier.
New bands tagged with the term have rougher edges that are as influenced by godfathers of the microgenre like Braid as they are by hyperliterate (and hyperconfessional) indie rockers like the Mountain Goats, with some abandoning pop pretenses almost entirely. But the guitars and the core element divined by the genre’s name, which is derived from “emotional,” remain. And on Monday night at the Middle East Downstairs, shared passion served as a third rail for both the crowd and the bands on the bill.
Headliner Modern Baseball’s second album, this year’s “You’re Gonna Miss It All (Run for Cover),” is a knotty, chatty record that defies easy categorization — songs veer off in unexpected directions, with disarmingly straightforward, slice-of-20-something-life monologues serving as the linchpin. Monday’s set was taut, marked by tracks like the speedy “Tears Over Beers” and the radio-ready anthem “Charlie Black.” At one point vocalist Jake Ewald teased the Knack’s tireless “My Sharona,” and the song that followed (“Voting Early”) appropriated that track’s opening chug before taking on a brief, snide life of its own.
The other acts also elbowed their way around emo’s parameters. The Hotelier used the entire spectrum of amp-borne emotion to get its message across, swinging from quiet introspection to curdled agony while inspiring arena-ready singalongs. At times New Hampshire’s Old Gray used its herky-jerky thrash as a vehicle for what an earlier generation might have referred to as “slam poetry,” while the guitarist of Minnesota’s Tiny Moving Parts flexed his muscles on spindly, intricate lines as counterpoint to his band’s steady low end. But all shared heart-on-sleeve lyrics, roaring guitars that threatened to tear the roof off the place, and genuine camaraderie with and appreciation for the other members of the bill. (Modern Baseball songwriter Brendan Lukens was down for the count with walking pneumonia; Cameron Boucher, who had already played two sets earlier in the evening, filled in more than ably.)
The youthful audience served as a sixth man of sorts, shouting along with every word and hoisting each other above the crowd when they weren’t lunging toward the stage; the bands were equally appreciative, taking time out to marvel at the heaving mass before them. It was rock show as communion, with both sides of the stage beaming energy toward each other, while detailing moments that could only be blotted away by turning the music to maximum volume.
Modern Baseball, the Hotelier, Tiny Moving Parts, and Sorority Noise will play the Middle East Upstairs on Saturday afternoon. All ages; doors at 1 p.m. www.mideastclub.comMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.