Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The Greek Theatre, Berkeley
"East Bay!" "Berkeley!" "BAY AREA!"
Billie Joe Armstrong is in a constant state of apeshit. He is onstage at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, on a warmish spring night under a glowing moon, playing for a sold-out crowd of cool dads and breathless preteens and little girls at their first concert ever. He is three miles from 924 Gilman, the Berkeley club where Green Day honed its world-dominating pop-punk in front of a whole other generation of Bay Area kids. And there's no question how he feels about it. "It's about our fucking hometown right now!" he shouts. "Oh my god, so nice to be home," he moans later.
Tonight's show will follow the template of the band's current live set -- nearly 30 songs from all over its career, over almost two and a half hours. But somehow, it's also different, and better -- because Green Day is from here, and it's obvious the band members still care a lot about that.
There is something about hearing "Welcome to Paradise" just up the hill from the urban grit it was written about, or taking in the borderline-absurd indictments of "Holiday" in a city that specializes in borderline-absurd indictments. You can see how much Green Day remains a product of the Berkeley worldview. But, crucially, the band melds that perspective with Billie Joe's pop talents, and a studied flair for theatricality that is -- no coincidence -- straight outta Broadway.
They go to exhaustive ends to ensure that such a long show remains entertaining, with every detail meticulously arranged. It's no accident, for example, that "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Blitzkrieg Bop" play over the P.A. right before the band goes on -- they're a perfect lead-in. Billie Joe did not "forget" the third verse to "Longview" -- he wanted to give a fan the pleasure of shouting "masturbation" in front of 8,000 people. And (obviously) he's bellowing "Hey-oooo" during every lull, inserting asides into the lyrics, and naming random Bay Area cities ("San Jose!" "Petaluma!") because it grabs attention and keeps people excited. (The constant "Hey-ooo" call-and-response thing does get annoying, though.)
For much of tonight's show, it seems like Green Day can't get through a song without some kind of gimmick, whether it's bringing down the music to shout at the crowd, yanking a fan onstage to stage-dive, or letting the crowd sing entire verses. In that sense a Green Day show resembles a Top 40 pop show (which you could argue it kind of is) without the elaborate staging. But it's more like a three-way hybrid between a punk show, with circle pits filled with sweaty kids and near-constant crowd surfing; a regular rock show, with older couples and shirtless bros, beers in hand, nodding along to radio-certified hits; and a pop spectacle, with props like a gun that shoots T-shirts into the crowd, and a bit where the members dress up in ridiculous costumes and play a rendition of James Brown's "Shout and Shimmy." Let no one wonder how Green Day sells out arenas: It casts its net far and wide. Fandom is no prerequisite for enjoying what sometimes feels like a goofy variety act.
Tonight's setlist will span most of band's roughly 20-year career, from "Christie Road" to closer "Brutal Love," off of ¡TRÉ!, the last of Green Day's three recent albums. A lot of the audience tonight wasn't born when Dookie came out, but still cheered like hell for "Burnout," still shouted along to "Longview," still sang all the words to "She." The crowd favorites are American Idiot anthems, though -- and when they get an airing, every one sounds like a hit. "St. Jimmy" is our favorite, brutally fast and snarling. And the band plays "Jesus of Suburbia" so thrillingly live that it lands in the penultimate slot of the encore, the last of the well-known Green Day songs for the night.
The band's new material largely ditches the agit-stadium-rock of American Idiot for a license to roam all over the rock map, and even off of it. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes not. "Stay the Night" could be a lesser Green Day song from '94, but the excellent "Stop When the Red Lights Flash" tackles sexual themes the band hasn't touched before. "Oh Love" is more giddy, purposeless power-pop than anything the band's done previously -- even if it does sound familiar -- and "Brutal Love" is a classic R&B template converted into a slow-burning rock ballad.
At first the brand-new "Brutal Love" seems like an odd choice for a closer, beginning slowly with Armstrong's voice over a lone, thin, guitar. But as the slow song builds into a bristling climax, its soaring hook sinks in deep. With piano, a soulful hook, and half a dozen people on a stage drenched in LED lights, the performance couldn't be farther from snotty punk played in the dingy environs of 924 Gilman. But in another sense -- the marriage of punk energy and a ruthless chorus that lingers in your ears for hours afterward -- "Brutal Love" shows exactly what Green Day has done well all along.
Strobe malfunction: During "Welcome to Paradise," the band's wall of insanely bright LED lights seemed to get stuck in strobe mode, irritating both the audience and Billie Joe. Someone finally fixed it, but we were seeing blue dots for a few minutes afterward.
Punk as, well: Tonight's show is not Gilman-style DIY, obviously, but it's not without some trappings of the culture: At one point, a kid wearing liberty spikes and a studded leather jacket with a huge Dead Kennedys patch will stage-dive and crowd-surf. (That's him at center in the photo above.) And Billie Joe, having just brought said kid up to sing on "Longview," watches the whole thing beamingly.
Is one better than three? Green Day played about an entire album's worth of new songs in the show -- including most of the good ones. It made us wonder why the band didn't release just one very good new album, instead of three decent ones.