Bad Religion, Off! House of Blues April 3, 2015
For more than three and a half decades, audience expectations of Bad Religion seem rather cut in stone. They don't expect some wavering, ever-experimenting, genre-morphing shenanigans, but something far more rigorous: relentlessly propelled speed and intelligent fury; nasally wry wordplay vocals spouting lyrics that dance somewhere between an American-sourced, modern, science-brained Shakespeare and a livelier version of Noam Chomsky; jet-fueled, effortlessly limber drums; and twin-guitar blasts that are redolent with tight-torqued charred power chords and zealous melodic interplay.
At House of Blues Friday night, they delivered this exact blend.
Bad Religion's ability to attract a diehard audience differs from year to year. They've held forth at the Axiom, Verizon, Numbers, Warehouse Live and now the HOB. Each time, though, they stand and deliver with finesse, fomenting a kind of discourse for hardcore punk citizenry. Under their helm, the genre is no dumb game plotted by cliché-ridden, irascible minor characters: instead, Bad Religion continues to yield the prolonged cry of a rational town naysayer trying to infuse unwelcome truths into the fabric of dominant culture.
To true believers, the kind that can mime their complex lyrics without a single stumble, the band is all this and more. They are uber-punks, time-tested as a force of nature.
On the other hand, dissenters will cast up a bold hand and simply declare them, "Sellouts. Poseurs. Retirement-age pseudo-ragers. Machine-cut corporate rock for the tired masses." Yet, they are the first to point out their own wrinkles, comparing themselves to shriveled grandparents that the crowd felt obliged to visit at Christmas time because they might not see them again. So, old they may be, but they choose to be tongue-in-cheek, not ornery. Which is how they explained the tune "Fuck You," which is actually self-aimed, not simply meant to inflame listeners.
The uneasy truth lies in between those two aforementioned points of view. They are easy on the ears, but hell, so were the Ramones, and the didactics and dialectics buried in the lyrics of Greg Graffin offer a minefield of meaning. And True North (2013) seemed to be a spark-hissing jolt in their lifeline, likely their best musical outing in a decade. It was dynamic, focused, unapologetically smart, and emboldened.
They opened the show with refrains from Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps a satiric nod to both bloated Broadway and Hollywood but also to a decade that heaved Bad Religion into childhood. From the beginning of the set, they cut deep into their catalog, igniting the crowd on tunes like "Spirit Shine" from mid-1990s LP The Gray Race and "Change of Ideas" and "No Control," songs that closed the decade of the 1980s, when the band was one of the few carrying forth the flame of Los Angeles hardcore punk into the mid-Bush era.
Quickly, the band revisited the 1990s again, pulling out fluid versions of "Stranger than Fiction" before diving headlong into eco-consciousness and their global political vision of the 2000s like "Kyoto Now!", which they joked might not be the most welcomed song amid the local cauldron of chemical plants and energy economy. No more than a few songs later, they pulled out "Flat Earth Society" from 1990, a nod to the delusions of skeptics, as well as the mid-2000s "Social Suicide," which implores people to turn the tide and use perseverance as a tool.
At that juncture, the band recalled their long relationship with Texas tour stops; in fact, bassist Jay Bentley recalled Houston being the first stop on their "Suffer" tour, which might have been unheard by the crowd since the band immediately dived straight into the melodic sentiments of "Wrong Way Kids," a half-decade old tune; the thickly churning, syncopated, mid-tempo "Submission Complete" from New Maps of Hell; pop-infused agit-prop "The Defense," which decries computer surveillance by the Pentagon; as well as "Skyscraper" from Recipe for Hate.
Then they lit the torch of the tune "You Are (The Government)," actually played first during the "Suffer" tour, but not without joking that it was the favorite song of the Bush right-wing dynasty. They soon returned to Suffer territory by unleashing "Best For You," followed by the title track, as well as "Delirium of Disorder" and "Do What You Want" in quick succession.
The effect from the time travel was dizzying: like the Ramones, barely any breathing space book-ended each song, as if for over an hour plus the songs formed one unified assault on the military-industrial-information state of contemporary living, all while pushing people to fight back with armored intelligence.
Indeed, Bad Religion have not left behind any limp carcasses of themselves. They keep fighting on the frontlines of punk and popular culture, whether anyone likes it or not. But at least they do so with earthy self-effacement, so not even cynics can fault them as they joke and prod the audience. They know the struggle must offer up dancing, not just didactics.
Story continues on the next page.
OFF!, on the other hand, is the total epitome of anger incorporated, the volatile cousin of Bad Religion, evoking a perfect merger between sped-up stoner-rock Fu Manchu and bristling, barbed, bastardized Black Flag. They are a vat of swirling controlled chaos, producing barely one-minute plus tirades that make one's blood burst into slamdance memories.
At the helm, Keith Morris, the first singer of Black Flag, is the preacher fomenting discord and cultural critiques at the same time, like a car crash into the edifice of town halls and omnipresent mass media. Riots cops, government morass, bureaucracy sludging up the pipes of democracy, plus hypocrites and junk science become the straw dogs he burns with wild-eyed, sardonic glee. They quickly swallowed the audience whole with outcast youth tunes like "Void You Out," "I Don't Belong," and "Crawl," whose stop/start rhythms seem to capture the crash and burn skateboarding lifestyle.
The same holds true for the molten "Time's Not On Your Side," which skirts between a heavy slo-mo cataclysm and burning-tire fast-car tempos. Meanwhile, "Meet Your God" unflurled like mid-period Circle Jerks, also fronted by Morris, with heavier doses of venom.
In a touching moment, he conjured memories of his former roommate Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, whose funeral sparked his imagination 19 years ago. Instead of being bleary-eyed and blue, Morris dreamed of Pierce swinging around on buccaneer ropes, as if in Pirates of the Caribbean. Later, Morris explained meeting both OFF! bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Red Kross), who was only 11 at the time, and Jay Bentley from Bad Religion as a kid too. He showed up at Black Flag's melee at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach in 1979, when the audience pelted the band and punk pogoers with random fruit, beers, and cans.
The days of Jimmy Carter's overly sunny smile are long gone, as is likely any hope of a true, full-fledged Black Flag reunion, but Morris keeps the burning spirit alive and well, exposed nakedly on the musical skin of OFF!
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Personal Bias: Over a decade ago, I ate at Van Loc (RIP!) with Keith Morris and the Circle Jerks: that interview ended up in Left of the Dial, my third book.
The Crowd: Mostly a becalmed mix of all-agers sporting U.K. Subs, Rise Against and Big Boys shirts, like a potpourri of punk.
Overheard In the Crowd: "It's so weird seeming them in Houston," said one L.A. native, whose own band also happened to play on stage with Keith Morris's much beloved Circle Jerks at infamous CBGB. Then she huskily sang the chorus "Making the Bomb"!
Random Notebook Dump: Squeezing a sloppy plastic cup beer between your legs and trying to take iPhone photos from the sweltering mid-crowd position should be an Olympic event!