If you look back on the time that's passed since 1979, there's a huge amount of change that has shaped modern society. Technology, politics, commerce; all things that have had a major impact on how we live in 2015. But along with the price of gas soaring and the evolution of cell phones, we've had entertainment that has stood by our side; telling and showing us the change through art. Although some of those artist focus on the money and the fame, there are a few that want to make a change. Like politics, music gives artists a voice that can reach millions of people. Some abuse that voice with a hit single that was written for them, then die out; others create a legacy and stay around for years.
While Margaret Thatcher influenced the working-class punks in the U.K., hardcore punks in U.S. had a different political impact with Ronald Reagan's presidency; both giving different sounds, but both being similar in that they have, and still are, characterizing generations. Bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Reagan Youth capitalized on the faults that American politics created in the early 80s. The angst of the scene created an image that most of America would consider barbaric, but few groups stood out with an intellectual and impacting message. When I think of how a change can be made, I don't see it through violence and anger, but through a meaningful, humanitarian conversation.
The way a person of faith goes to church is comparable to how I go to concerts. Congregating with like-minded people, hanging on every word the person with the microphone says, and singing hymns at the top of my lungs; screaming words into the sky with my hands in the air like it's healing me! We even have communion at the bar! Since 2004 I've been going to a particular sermon for a very unique religion, a Bad Religion. With talk of human decency and political revolution in front of a choir style “oozin' aahs”, Bad Religion have spread their message from Southern California, around the world, and back again for over 30 years. During all this time they have released 16 albums, often on guitarist Brett Gurewitz's own Epitaph Records.
With such an extensive library of songs spanning over three decades, your usual Bad Religion show can be a 30 song set; but where does the attention go? Do they promote the new songs that people may not know about, or do they play the old tracks that everyone is used to? If you're Bad Religion, instead of doing a little of both in one night like usual, you do a lot of both in two nights! On the Battle of the Centuries dates of this years tour, Bad Religion split their discography down the middle for a different century of Punk Rock on each night. They also brought Keith Morris's (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) band OFF! along with them for a double-header of expeditious punk rock at the House of Blues in Las Vegas on April 13the and 14th. With only one night to go to, it was only natural that ZrockR joined the first night for some pre-millennium hits!
Opening up before OFF! Was a four-piece, female fronted band from L.A. named Kill My Coquette. Singer Natalie Sperl definitely leaves an impression; rocking out in panties, stalkings, a tube top and a leather jacket(sometimes). I had heard the crowd snicker about how much she sounded like Brody Dalle from The Distillers, but with being a band from L.A., I'm sure that is high praise and not a joke for Natalie. With tracks about a fling at Coachella called 'Festival Boys' and a cover of The Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' to name a few, they were a good little taste on a newer L.A. Rock.
With OFF! Coming up next, you could hear a buzz of references to Keith Morris; talking about if he would play Black Flag or Circle Jerks songs. Being a fan of the band I was pretty sure that wasn't happening. The collection of songs that OFF! has put together is more than enough to fill a set without having to reach back into the past for songs they(as a whole) didn't write. From the time they got on stage to the time they left, OFF! brought the energy that was needed to hype the crowd for Bad Religion. Starting with 'Void You Out' and through tracks like 'Over Our Heads', 'King Kong Brigade', and my personal favorite 'Meet Your God'. Keith's paranoid stage presence is a sight to see. Wide-eyed and energetic, he acts exactly how you would think from hearing him on album. Guitarist Dimitri Coats(also frontman for Burning Brides) held together the energy well with blaring power chords, giving it a very progressive, west coast style of punk, almost Adolescents-like. The crowd had seemed to not really get into the set though. A lot of head movement, but not a huge pit. In between songs Keith would sometimes stop and acknowledge the crowd. During one of his breaks he had mentioned how Las Vegas is not a town to stick around in; that he had lived here when he was seven years old, and all he needed here was a year to figure out that this is no place to live. He also noted that he lived down the street from The Showboat Hotel and Casino, that has since been renamed and imploded. The only response I heard from the crowd during all of this was a lone voice scream “Nervous Breakdown!” I thought about how it sounded; an E.P. that Keith Morris had recorded 30 years ago with Black Flag, that was the only Black Flag recordings he did, is still being yelled at him when he has been through decades of trying to start something different.
The rest of the set saw songs like 'Borrow and Bomb', 'Hypnotized', 'Black Thoughts', and closed with 'Upside Down'. I had seen OFF! At Punk Rock Bowling last year, and both performances stood up to them on album. While the stage was getting cleared to make way for Bad Religion's equipment, I was glad to see that the crowd was getting bigger and not dissipating with the people going to smoke or get drinks. I hadn't seen that many people on the floor the entire night, so my expectations were satisfied once we began to get more packed in on the floor. On every tour that I've seen Bad Religion on, there is always a banner draped behind them that takes up almost the entire length of the stage; usually displaying the cover of whatever album they are touring. I was a little excited to see a new one, but once the curtains fell, it turned out to be the same banner used on the Summer Nationals Tour last year with Stiff Little Fingers, Pennywise, and The Offspring. The banner is one of my favorites though; with their signature logo, The Crossbuster, of a Christian Cross with a Ghostbusters style red circle and line slashed through it, was centered with circle symbols of all of Bad Religions past albums around it.
As the lights dimmed and the crowd erupted, a familiar sound came from the house speakers and gave most of the people around me a puzzled look on their face. It was 'The Overture' from Jesus Christ Superstar, blaring with strobe lights flashing in every direction; and as the trumpets in the end of the song rang out, Bad Religion took the stage in front of a sea of fist and devil horns being held up by the crowd. They started the set with 'Spirit Shine' off of The Grey Race with little reaction from the crowd, but the song was followed by a few quick palm-muted power chords and, in perfect timing, an eruption of the words “I can't believe it!” from singer Greg Graffin and the entire crowd, starting off the fan favorite '21st Century Digital Boy' from Against the Grain. The song immediately turned the few people dancing in the middle of the floor, to a very well tamed mosh pit. Bad Religion pits haven't seemed too rowdy in my opinion, but they are in no way clam. Great band to do a sort of skank/mosh combination to and not really get that rough.
To follow '21st Century Digital Boy', they started bouncing around with songs from different albums, like the title track from Stranger Than Fiction, 'Along the Way' from Back To The Known, and a call out to half-truthful politicians in' Sowing Up The Seeds of Utopia' from No Substance. After the ring out of the song, Graffin stopped for a few words; letting everyone know that they were playing 30 pre 2000 songs, then moving onto how much they love coming to Las Vegas and that the band makes a point to stop here once a year. From here they got into album groups starting off with Suffer from 1988. The first three songs of the album 'You Are The Government', '1000 More Fools', and ''How Much Is Enough' were followed up by the title rack of the album 'Suffer', 'Delirium of Disorder', and 'Do What You Want'; with one of my favorite lines on the album “I don't know if the billions will survive, but I'll believe in God when 1 and 1 are 5”. One song I had wish was included was 'Best For You'. I thought it may come up later, but those would be the last songs heard from Suffer.
After being able to pretend it was Christmas Day in the 'Atomic Garden' and then tear ourselves down with 'Skyscrapers', they showcased another album, which is my personal favorite, No Control. Starting in album order with 'Change Of Ideas' and 'Big Bang', then going into 'I Want To Conquer The World', 'Henchman' and 'You' to name a few, the crowd energy really picked up with the fast-paced tempo of the album; and having it include a lot of crowd favorites really gave the room energy from the floor to the balcony seats. Graffin took another break to talk to the crowd; calling out a guy in front with a Minor Threat shirt on, and then pointing to guitarist Brian Baker to remind him how he was the guitarist of Minor Threat in a joking kind of way. Slower songs like 'Struck a Nerve' and 'Handshake' gave the crowd a moment to gather themselves after the more hardcore parts they just went through. I noticed a lot of head-bobbing and swaying while Graffin sort of directed the room like an orchestra with his hands waiving about as he so often does.
You know a Bad Religion set is coming to an end when they play 'American Jesus', so as the guitar played it in I looked back and thought about how fast 30 songs can go by at a punk show. 'American Jesus' would take them off stage and back for an encore that would end with the anthem 'Fuck Armageddon... This Is Hell'. During the show, Greg Graffin would point out how reviews have been saying Bad Religion are starting to look like the “parents of punk rock”; and while that is true, their energy is in the same class as footage I've seen from 1995. Graffin and the rest of the band have been through the entire revolution of punk rock in America; and although their age shows, the story they tell through their instruments has held a constant message for generations to appreciate. Whether you believe in religion in any way or not, we can all agree that living with good morals is the right thing to do. If an x'ed out cross for a bands logo is something that makes you immediately dismiss them as an "anti-everything" band, then Bad Religion definitely isn't for you; but if more people were able to hear out the punk scene, maybe a better change can be made.
Maybe what society has rejected as an angry youth movement can one day stand out as the idealistic answer we need. If that never does happen, nothing will change. We'll continue to get together with hundreds of like-minded people on any given weekend, and scream our songs into the face off anyone who can hear it.
All photos © Stephy Hayward / ZRock'R Magazine