First, some quick background. Black Flag were an American hardcore punk band that was active between 1976-1986. Their main songwriter and only constant member was guitar player Greg Ginn. They went through a succession of lead singers in their early years, before settling in with Henry Rollins. Recently, the various members of Black Flag have reformed in two separate bands. First is “Black Flag”, with Ginn and second singer Ron Reyes, and two anonymous dudes on bass and drums. Secondly, is “FLAG”, with BF’s third singer (and later rhythm guitar player) Dez Cadena, longtime bassist Chuck Dukowski, original singer Keith Morris, drummer Bill Stevenson (who played drums with Black Flag longer than anyone, although he is my least favorite BF drummer), and guitar player Stephen Egerton, who played with Stevenson in the band ALL. Henry Rollins is sitting both reunions out, which is best for all parties involved.
I was really on the fence about going to this show at all. Paying 35 or 40 bucks to see a bunch of 50something year olds playing songs they didn’t even write seemed like a shaky proposition. I had seen some youtube footage that looked promising, but I never committed to buying a ticket. But, last night I got off work and had to go to the East Village anyway to pick up a check. After a beer or two, I decided to walk over to Irving Plaza and see what was going on. Parked out front, the people watching was interesting. Grey hair, bald heads, and beer bellies were the rule of the day. There are TONS of young kids who still listen to Black Flag in 2013, but most of them apparently didn’t have or want to spend the 35 bucks. The young kids I did see looked more like juggalos than HC kids circ 2013. Dez Cadena was standing outside in the fenced off smoking section taking it all in as well. No one recognized him or bothered him. Jerry Only from the Misfits came in decked out in full Road Warrior gear pushing someone in a wheelchair. I was still weighing the pros and cons of approaching the one lonely scalper working the block, when a guy came up to me and asked if I needed a ticket. I said yes, and he handed me one and told me it was my lucky day.
Before I could ask if he was serious, my little angel turned and flew away. I got inside at the start of TSOL’s set. I watched about half of it and realized I was standing right behind Vinnie Stigma. He is short.
TSOL were ok, I wished they had played more of their moody songs as opposed to their straight ahead HC ones, though they did play “Dance With Me” and “Wash Away.” Jack Grisham has a huge Irish cop buckethead like Alec Baldwin. He was funny and engaging.
FLAG came out and opened with “Revenge”, which was a great declaration of intent, in regards to what kind of show it was going to be. The band sounded great, the sound they put out was the same as their old records. Stephen Egerton played a lucite Dan Armstrong guitar just like Greg Ginn’s and Dukowski played a Fender bass, staying with classic equipment, as opposed to some bands that feel the need to modernize their sound with newjack slick gear that does them no favors.
Halfway through the show, I realized that Dukowski really was the secret engine that kept Black Flag moving. Greg Ginn is a genius, but it was his downfall to push Dukowski out of the band. Although he is not nearly as limber a player as his replacement Kira Roessler, watching him up close, I could see that Duke is a great bass player.
Unlike many punk and HC bassists, he mostly plays with his fingers (index and middle specifically), not a pick. His right hand finger work is really limber and he basically plays like a less skilled Geezer Butler, which is no insult at all. His bass sound is just as much an identifiable sonic trademark of Black Flag as Ginn’s howling guitar. When Ginn decided he wanted things out of a bass player that Duke couldn’t give, he should have started a side project (which he ended up doing a few years later anyway, when he started the instrumental band Gone).
What Dukowski brings to the band is more than his musicianship. Even at nearly 60, he still carries a live wire energy and physicality with him on stage. Between songs he was slapping at his bass, pacing the stage, and mugging. Compared to the other guys in FLAG, I was reminded of that Bill Wyman quote about James Brown: “You could put Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley on one side of the stage, and James Brown on the other, and you wouldn’t even notice the others were there.”
There isn’t a lot to say about the set itself that one can’t see in the Moose Lodge video linked earlier (except there were less cell phones present). It was a good solid show. Hardcore by 50something year olds will never sound as crazy as hardcore played by 20something year olds, but FLAG brought it. This wasn’t the egofest of Ginn’s reformed version, that alternates hardcore with instro-jazz freakouts, and it wasn’t an exercise in boring professionalism either. Again, I have to credit to Dukowski. There is an element of chaos in his playing that never allowed the band to slip into cruise control. FLAG kept the energy levels high all night and with the exception of “My War”, all of the material dated from the bands first 4 years, when each song was like a bomb going off: short and concise, fast and furious. This set didn’t contain any bathroom break songs.
I realize my stone age smart phone photos look terrible. But, famed photographer Glen E. Friedman was on stage all night taking pictures, so hopefully some better ones will turn up.
Whether FLAG is worth the 35 or 40 dollars is a tough call. I don’t begrudge them their money at all. Everyone needs to make a living, and I also don’t think money was the motivating factor behind them touring. I think they did it out of genuine love for the music and they can enjoy playing this time around in a way they possibly didn’t the first time, when the need to constantly move forward took away any perspective they might have had about what they accomplished. But, there is some disconnect about the message and energy of the songs of Black Flag and an expensive reunion show. For a punk reunion show, it was a good time, but it can’t compare to seeing Negative Approach at Punk Island in 2010. That was a free show, held on Governor’s Island, featuring like 100 different punk bands. The sound went out halfway through Negative Approach’s set. I can’t imagine they got paid much, if anything. Certainly no college or retirement funds were padded. I am not saying this is the ideal situation for punk reunion shows, but something a little halfway would have been nice.