Living legends, that’s how Rise Against lead singer Tim Mcllrath described Bad Religion. It’s not an uncommon title ascribed to the venerated punk rock band. After all, Bad Religion has been together since 1979 and putting out albums since 1983; three years longer than I’ve been alive. Furthermore, it isn’t a stretch to call them one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time. When my companion at Stubb’s Tuesday night asked me if I preferred Bad Religion to Rise Against I said “I prefer them to most bands.” I hold the band to the highest degree, up there with Minor Threat and Black Flag.
It’s not uncommon either for the younger band to give such praise to the veterans they share the stage with. Often you’ll hear the opening act say something along the lines of “I can’t believe we’re up here tonight opening for gods (insert old-school band name here).” But Rise Against wasn’t at Stubb’s Tuesday night opening for Bad Religion. That happened at the same venue roughly five years earlier. Tuesday night, Bad Religion was there opening for Rise Against.
It was an odd feeling for those of us who had tracked both these bands careers through the years. Of course, Rise Against has only risen and gotten more attention, fame and recognition. But it’s not like Bad Religion has seen a massive drop off in the quality of their performance. Even late into their career they’ve released albums that I view as some of the best of their career – Against The Grain, The Process of Belief and The Empire Strikes First are all accomplished albums. Bad Religion pulled off a difficult trick in rock music that’s made even more difficult in punk – growing old.
|Four Years Strong|
Before we got to see either of these two forces there was the opening band Four Year Strong. At first I thought I didn’t know Four Year Strong’s music, but when they started playing I remembered that I had heard some of it but it was just totally forgettable (as evidenced by me forgetting it). As far as I can tell, Four Year Strong’s music isn’t really about anything other than hanging out with your friends, long summer nights, and knowing that these memories will, like, last forever, man. In fact, I imagine that the name itself refers to high school. However, despite my distaste for the band I actually kind of approved of them as an opening act. Their earnest delivery of the lyrics made them seem less inane than they actually are and the members continually worked the audience, telling them they needed to see hands and the air and people moving around. Don’t get me wrong, I would never actually advocate that anyone listen to Four Year Strong’s music, but if you’re ever in a situation where you have to listen to them to get to better bands the experience won’t be as painful as you’re fearing it might.
Next came the previously proclaimed “Living Legends” Bad Religion. This is my third time to see the band and each time I almost feel like an anachronism back in time. Not because the band members haven’t aged (they have), but because I associate so much of their music with an earlier era. It’s always a strange feeling to see it live. Lead singer Greg Gaffin was more talkative and animated than other performances I’ve seen (at least more talkative than I remember, it has been some time for me as well). One notable trait about his stage presence is his expressive hand movements, even assigning certain gestures to go along with lyrics in the songs. When he sings about going backward, he traces a U turn in the air. It is a strange thing to see at a punk rock show, but it is endearing in its own weird way. After all, more than 30 years and one Ph.D. later it would be strange if Graffin was still trying to dress and act like a 16-year-old.
If an attendee familiar with Bad Religion’s discography was in attendance Tuesday night he certainly wasn’t disappointed in the set list. Bad Religion played almost every one of their most notable songs: “Disease”, “American Jesus”, “Los Angeles is Burning” and my two favorites, “We’re Only Gonna Die” and “Sorrow”. The former being a viciously insightful song from a youth about the repetitiveness of man’s mistakes. The latter being an older man’s hope that one day we can escape them.
It was a great performance that won over the audience handily. It’s rare for the audience to cheer for an encore after the end of a set, but they did and meant it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any room for Bad Religion to re-enter the stage. It was time for the headliner Rise Against. From the second they entered the stage the audience was totally for whatever Rise Against was there to sell.
Rise Against is most often called punk or even hardcore punk, but to me their sound shares just as much with Alternative Rock. It’s clear that the band members hold early punk pioneers like Black Flag, Minor Threat and, of course, Bad Religion, in the highest esteem and much of their sound comes from that. But the way that Mcllrath’s rhythm guitar meets the sounds of the rest of the band just as much reminds me of a sound that early Foo Fighters might strive for (I know it’s a weird comparison that I might get flack for in the comments but I hear what I hear). But punk rock was always just as much about an attitude as anything else, and Rise Against certainly meets that criteria in spirit. They don’t dress the part much anymore. In fact they all looked fairly uniform on stage with closely cropped hair and form-fitting black shirts and jeans. But their lyrics are just as inciting and rebellious as ever, advocating a revolution if not in the streets than at least in the hearts of listeners.
It sounds corny when said like that, but Rise Against strikes me as fairly heart-on-its-sleeve when it comes to their desire for social changes and ideological adjustment. Their between song talks matched it, talking about everything from their desire for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end to the irony of a group of vegans playing at a barbecue joint.
While the band certainly left a lot on stage there was one major change from previous Rise Against performance I’d seen – Mcllrath seemed to have lost some of his populist edge. He used to live on the edge of the stage, hanging over the audience and reaching out to them like a rebel being taken away in a prison carriage. Now, he mostly stays confined behind his guitar and microphone stand. He certainly puts in the work on stage, but he seems more disconnected now.
This was partly remedied on the last song of the night during the encore set. While playing the appropriately-named “Give It All”, Mcllrath left his guitar and mic stand behind to not only reach out at the crowd but surf on their arms while they carried him like the hero they saw him as. It wasn’t a condescending move like it might sound, the way he looked back at them was more reminiscent of the way a brother looks at his younger sibling whom he’s proud of. Perhaps part of Mcllrath’s reservation was due to age, you certainly couldn’t blame him if that was the case – I get more fatigued just watching these shows than I used to. But it was good to see him regain that magnetic edge if only for one song at the end of the night.
From the way I’ve described Rise Against throughout this review you’d think they were some upstart rookies, they’re not – they’re seasoned veterans of the road compared to most bands. They know how to put on a show and while the band has changed over the years I don’t think they’ve sacrificed any sort of ethics they might have had. Any changes to the sound I attribute to the natural evolution of the band. Their success came about as hard work as much as it did making a sound with a broad appeal.
Ultimately though, I don’t know why the youth were more willing to pay the price of a ticket to see Rise Against than Bad Religion. It’s one of those things that you just don’t get with time, what the kids these days are listening to. But it’s good to see that they’re still pumping their fists in the air and at least believing they’ll change the world.
(Rise Against performed at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas on April 19, 2011)