Concert review: Bad Religion

Brooklyn Steel, Brooklyn, NY – August 3, 2019

Dreamed last night that I saw Bad Religion play in an undisclosed space roughly the size of a meat locker. We as fans were uncomfortably packed in – social distancing was not observed – and the band noticeably pent up and airtight. BR unleashed a quartet of personal favorites I would’ve never expected to hear live, and don’t expect I ever will again, before exiting stage left as if seized by the realization that a horrible mistake had been made. I shook Greg Graffin’s hand on his way out, or at least grazed his shoulder in passing. As dreams go lately, I’ll take it. Don’t worry, though. I like to confine my concert reviews to the realm of non-fiction, and so what you’re reading isn’t some embellished field report on that figment of my imagination. The harsh logistics of life under self-imposed quarantine haven’t yet pushed me to the point of whole cloth invention of performances with which I might theoretically ply and impress you. (I repeat, yet.) Aspiring concert goers are forced to subsist on a heady diet of live streams, archival Youtube clips, the odd live DVD or four, and sweet, sweet memories. As guidance on avoiding travel in the days leading up to Thanksgiving 2020 has poured out of almost every official channel and well of opinion possible, I have recently set up shop in that last realm, and the SoCal varsity punk institution, an indispensible favorite ever since I first listened to Stranger Than Fiction as a high school pizza delivery kid, has been much on my mind. 

Cast your mind back now to the summer of 2019. Seriously, it’ll be an improvement on your post-election, pre-winter COVID-era routine. If I allowed myself the personal bandwidth such wonderful memories require to fully relive, I’d take up personal residence. Buoyed by an evolving work/life balance that allowed me the unalloyed opportunity to travel for pleasure for the first time in my adult life, 2019 saw me taking full advantage. New York City seemed like the center of the known universe. I drank in its every detail as if each minute I spent there might culminate in a new toast. My first ever trip to the five boroughs (where I saw two of them), taken that May, was a sort of personal “bucket list” expedition – you may have previously read something of it here – and such a spectacular success that an immediate “cash-in” sequel was inevitable. The travel bug bit me long before a legitimate pandemic started taking its own swings, see, and the implications of the latter short-circuited my wanderlust just as it was approaching full flower. Earthbound, those memories now help sustain me. May in NYC shredded my personal policy on out of state travel instead of merely revising it, loosening prior restrictions to a ridiculous degree. I began searching for a signal event worthy of justifying another trip almost the instant I boarded the plane home from LaGuardia. Bad Religion, then starting the touring cycle for their rock solid new album Age of Unreason, was all I needed to pull the trigger. 

*Fifteen months separate that day from today, and the details still dance in my mind. Digging on the graffiti/alien architecture of street-level Queens and Brooklyn from my rolling perch; Late morning religious experiences at the Museum of the Moving Image; Checking out horror soundtrack vinyl, Criterion blu-rays, and subway stop refrigerator magnets in the MoMI gift shop; Watching a revival of Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” at the on-site movie theater; My whistlestop tour of craft breweries along the Long Island City Ale Trail (viva Alewife!); Random conversation with a pretty dog-walker owing to the terminal lack of space at Fifth Hammer Brewing; Hanging with my cousin, who graciously rode across town and into LIC just for the questionable privilege; Standing outside Troma Studios with a goofy smile on my face; Listening to a political dissertation from my jovial Peruvian Lyft driver on the way to the show; Finally eating dinner just shy of midnight – because I knew I’d forgotten something – and feeling mist from the rainstorm outside as servers raced to shore up their glassless windows against the deluge. Oh, and the show too. That’s what I call a Saturday.

Traditionally a tricky band to catch in the non-Chicago midwest unless attached to a bloated festival like the Warped Tour, Bad Religion was possibly not the perfect answer to my wishlist – indeed, they would announce a show in Cleveland a mere week after I’d bought all my tickets – but they were a highly convenient and intriguing one. The prospect ticked plenty of boxes, and I proceeded full speed, sans regret. Here was a band I had long adored but still rarely seen live, once again hitting the populist propaganda trail, and you could sense their crackling collective energy, not just from the fun of taking a sterling new song cycle out for a walk, but also their emeritus status as cranky countercultural uncles railing against the myriad outrages and impurities of the seemingly never ending Trump regime. Though they have offered dependably barbed and literate real time critiques of every Republican seat filler since Reagan – and even, if memory serves, some sidelong swipes at Nixon retroactively – there is a sense in which Bad Religion’s protests against perversions of power are evergreen, and their catalogue so deep yet immediate, as if Age of Unreason was somehow not their first new album in six years but their sixth. From Age to True North, from Process of Belief to Empire Strikes First, from No Substance to Gray Race, every setlist nook and/or cranny held a potential showstopper. That didn’t even take into account the band’s acknowledged late-eighties “classic” period. I anticipated a lively time, full of snark and spunk and sing-along choruses, and I received it in spades. 

I’ve spent over twenty years now in thrall to Bad Religion’s unique brand of applied intellectual angst. On a pleasant early August Saturday night – the tolerable humidity would build a few hours yet before finally spawning a downpour – I capped a wonderful day of exploration with a visit to the industrial landscape of Brooklyn Steel. I’m a big fan of the “converted warehouse” aesthetic when it comes to concert venues, and this time location and performer made a perfect pair. Punk rock is no frills and propulsive by its nature, even when played by a sextet of suburban dads with a median age comfortably into their fifties. Age is no obstacle to Bad Religion, of course – talent and temperament top the heap – but it is an inevitable discussion point. Even cursory exposure to improvised explosive devices like set opener “Them and Us”, reliable rockers “Recipe for Hate” and “New Dark Ages”, old school favorites “Suffer” and “21st Century (Digital Boy)”, or cheeky recent audience participation catalyst “F$%k You” quickly disabuse any such notion in the listener. And that was just the first half of the main set. Singer Greg Graffin, himself a doctor of evolutionary biology, conserves energy whilst still commanding the stage like a guest lecturer holding forth on a series of the most fascinating and timely topics one could imagine. Every once in a while, the bottom fell out of Jay Bentley’s patented supporting vocals, but the band’s sound was strong otherwise. Windmilling new drummer Jamie Miller made an acceptable replacement for departed precision dynamo Brooks Wackerman. Everywhere you looked, there was cause to be impressed.

Assuming you’re able to stand on stage and play competently without lapsing into self-parody, the point at which age becomes a practical concern for a band of Bad Religion’s vintage most reliably comes when devising a setlist. The Brooklyn Steel performance was an unsubtle reminder of Bad Religion’s sonic impact and staying power, even to a longtime adherent probably more familiar with, say, the Youtube video of their 2018 appearance at the Rock Am Ring festival in Nurburgring, Germany than anything witnessed with his own two eyes on his own two feet. For the record, I much preferred this show, which drew its twenty-seven total daggers judiciously but strategically, ensuring at least base representation from the most deserving of Bad Religion’s seventeen studio records. Most striking was the extended section given over to reproducing the second side of 1989’s landmark No Control – ask any PS1 kid about demolishing the warehouse level of the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to the defiant strains of “You” – but everything contributed to the sense of growing momentum. Sure, I could take issue with the trio of songs selected from Age, but they were balanced out nicely by choice cuts from Generator and Stranger Than Fiction, and topped off perfectly by the foundational riff of BR national anthem “F$%k Armageddon (This is Hell)”, swirling around us with typhonic power right up to the moment the drums finally kick in and the room detonates. That moment, whether experienced in person or on tape delay, never stops being awesome.

Bad Religion may not provide the revelatory live experience of a prime nine inch nails or Napalm Death – their substance to flash ratio is too hopelessly skewed, their brand of chaos a bit too clinical and tightly controlled overall – but they are similarly bulletproof performers who deliver exactly what they promise: seventy-five minutes of whip-smart, incendiary, transformational punk rock. Just six guys playing their asses off in front of a two-story logo, with lights, accoutrements, and B.S. taking a backseat to moxy, musicality, and maximum adrenalized brainpower. Because of their steadfast insistence on intelligence above all else, Graffin, Brett Gurewitz, and company have always been a breed apart from not just their punk brethren – few, if any, of whom have logged sufficient hours to be considered peers – but the larger alt rock flock. No one ever knew quite what to make of or do with them, and so Bad Religion, despite their influence and desire to give back to subsequent generations, became something of an island to themselves, with a body of work that, under the radar, is one of the most impressive and important in the last three decades of rock. Bad Religion gives lie to the pervasive idea than fun music can’t be intelligent, and vice versa. The crowd at Brooklyn Steel certainly seemed convinced. Those are the kinds of memories that can help get us through a foreseeable future without live music, the kind of memories of which particularly sweet dreams are made.

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