The last time I saw Green Day headlining, they were playing the Paradise Lounge in 1994. MTV had yet to carpet-bomb the world with the "Longview" video, but there was a definite whiff of something in the air. Excitement? Expectation? East Bay "chronic?"
Whatever, it was plain to see that these Bay Area natives were going to move on to bigger venues very soon indeed.
The intervening years saw my interest in the band dim, as they became a stadium-swelling mega-brand, but I was pleased to see the angry anti-Bush rant of "American Idiot" touch a popular nerve and sell over 12 million records.
Good for the local lads.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself outside the DNA Lounge on Thursday night, about to see Green Day with my old college roommate, who had managed to score tickets to a show that sold out in 12 minutes.
The crowd inside was a cross-section of aging Gilman Street punks and giddy Live 105 alternateens. It's unnerving to see children at the DNA Lounge, but quite a number of "cool parents" had their offspring in tow. (Note to those kids: if you enjoyed yourselves, now would be a good time to write a nice letter to the A.B.C., which is engaged in a witch hunt to strip the DNA Lounge of its license. This is entirely related to the fact they host all-ages shows like this one).
There was no opening act aside from various roadies wandering around looking dazed from trying to stuff a stadium-sized sound rig into a bar that holds 800 people.
Green Day came on at 10:15 p.m. and announced they would be playing their entire new record, "21st Century Breakdown," which is due out on May 15, from start to finish. The trio was fleshed out by two backing guitarists and a keyboardist, all shoehorned onto a stage smaller than my back patio.
On first listen, the new material sounds like "American Idiot, The Sequel." There are similar epic song structures, with varied parts and abrupt tempo changes, all wrapped in a confection of inviting melody.
Drawing from the same three-chord wellspring as most of their catalog, there is an instant familiarity to many of the new songs.
I'd forgotten what a great front man Billie Joe Armstrong is. He hopped around like an amphetamine-fueled pogo stick, striking ironic rock star poses, and engaging the crowd in frenzied arm waving, "moshing", and occasional crowd surfing, including one kid, who was maybe 9-years-old, whom Billie allowed up, to take his first stage-dive.)
Road-testing new material can be a gamble for the performer and a test of the patience of the audience. The crowd here was polite but restrained, standing patiently through a steady diet of new songs, but waiting for something familiar so they could start a circle pit.
Standout tracks from the new material:
"Know Your Enemy," sounded more like My Chemical Romance than Green Day, and you can see where MCR swiped a lot of the ideas for their own concept albums.
"Viva La Gloria" had this reviewer sadly scrawling "power ballad" in his notebook until the latter portion of the song kicked into heads-down punk rock overdrive.
"Before the Lobotomy" suffered a couple bum notes in the vocal department, as Billy Joe tested out the top end of his range. Thom Yorke he is not. That said, he is a surprisingly boyish 36-year-old, and there must be a painting of him in an attic somewhere that looks like total crap.
Green Day's next several songs illustrated that they are a band with a solid grasp of the quiet/loud dynamic that Nirvana minted into platinum in the 90s. This give and take, with balls-out-rock following moments of catch-your-breath calm, dates back to "Longview" and gives some insight into why this band has gotten so popular. If The Ramones had thought to write a few sensitive piano interludes, maybe they would have gotten huge, too.
"East Jesus Nowhere" sounds like a certain single, with a stomping glam-rock beat that's more Slade than Sex Pistols.
Other new tracks echoed Eastern European "gypsy punk," the Violent Femmes, and, oddly, ELO. Green Day has been accused of cribbing a bit too liberally from other songwriters, and one new track is amusingly similar to a certain well-worn Aerosmith anthem. It’s so close that our section of the balcony began singing the words to "Dream On" in place of whatever Billie Joe has written. (To be fair, I was standing with the hosts of the DNA's super-club "Bootie," so perhaps this "instant mash up" wasn't totally unexpected.)
My notes for "21 Guns" just say "epic" (much akin to "Jesus of Suburbia"), and my scrawl for "See The Light" just says "instant anthem."
At this point, the band took a short break, but was lured back out for an "encore." There followed another hour-plus set of classics from the band's remarkably deep back catalog. This is the point where the evening crossed from “enjoyable” to “phenomenal,” as the crowd got a set of gems they’d been waiting (in many cases) their entire lives to hear in such an intimate venue. "American Idiot," "Jesus of Suburbia," "Novocain," "Burnout," "She," and a host of other songs you know by heart.
AFI's Davey Havok sprinted down from the balcony to join the band for "Going to Pasalacqua," looking like The Cramps' Bryan Gregory with a blond pompadour that wasn't quite working for him.
They did "King For A Day" as a mass sing along, then a rousing cover of the Isley Brothers' "Shout," which found the band flat on their backs for the "little bit softer now" parts, only to leap back into snarling punk-rock mode for the "little bit louder" finale.
After nearly three hours of anthemic arms-in-the-air East Bay punk, the audience was in rapture. They gave us one last run through "Minority," a song that doesn’t stand out much on record, but which was triumphant on this night, in this tiny sweatbox.
There were a few technical hitches, from a band just learning to play these songs live, but they shrugged them off as they hurtled onward in their quest for pop-punk ecstasy.
I left the show with the same feeling I had when leaving the Paradise all those years before: "This is a band on the cusp of great things."
Malderor is an aging punk-rocker, whose writing is featured in the book "Burning Man Live," out now from ReSearch Publications.