More and more legendary bands are regrouping and hitting the road for various reasons, some for nostalgia sake and some just because they like being on the road and enjoy playing live. This summer, BLACK FLAG actually has two incarnations on the road, the “official” Black Flag with Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes and Flag, featuring Bill Stevenson, Keith Morris, Dez Cadena, Chuck Duckowski, and Stephen Edgerton (Descendents). Unfortunately, both are not coming within range for me to go see, but the official Black Flag version did come to St. Louis and I simply had to go. I was lucky enough to see them in 1986, but this version was one that would be playing largely older songs that I was never able to see live, so I couldn’t pass up the chance. One thing to keep in mind with this review: I was in the midst of all sort of chaos throughout the show, so keep that in mind, i.e., my perspective was a bit skewed as I was frantically trying to stay upright and alive. So, since I have the”bars” inked on my shoulder, I figured someone would want to know what I thought of this incarnation of Black Flag. First, I will say that Ron is probably my fourth favorite singer (behind Hank, Keith, and Dez) but Greg Ginn would be my favorite guitar player (ha), so that may provide some perspective as well.
I’m not going to do a song by song review, again because I was in the pit and am old and don’t remember, but in general, most of the songs were off the First Four Years collection and those are right in Ron’s wheelhouse. The pit literally exploded during “Depression” and “Nervous Breakdown” in such a way that I haven’t seen in ages and I still go to punk shows. This old man was a bit concerned for his safety at first, but then the reflexes and training kicked in and all was well. Great crowd, everyone in the pit knew every word to the old songs and things in there were cordial, despite appearances from the outside. Think riot in a subway car to get a visual. They did play some new songs and in general, those didn’t work, but that’s somewhat normal for any band playing new songs in a show like this. Those did provide a chance to catch one’s breath and relax for a bit which was certainly welcome. Perhaps not surprisingly there weren’t many songs from the Rollins era but that may have been a good thing as those just didn’t seem to work with Ron on vocals. “Black Coffee” and “Can’t Decide” are the two I remember offhand, and ironically, one Fb comment on the show I saw said that those were two of the best songs last night, so I may be in the minority view. “Can’t Decide” started off with all sorts of feedback in an extended intro just like off the Live 84 album, and that is so cool. I still love Greg’s use of feedback. The band, including Greg, typically stayed toward the back of the stage, just like in the old days, leaving Ron up front, which visually was sort of odd as Ron now looks like Tom Araya of Slayer, but like I said, on the songs from Ron’s era in the band, he “owned” those. As I told Greg Ginn before the show, I saw Black Flag 27 years ago, and at that time they only played songs from My War and later, so this was a chance to see and experience the older songs I love in a live setting and they did not disappoint.
How this all would have been from an onlooker view outside the chaos of the pit, I’m not sure. For all I know, from that perspective they may look like old men trying to make few bucks off nostalgia. Given the energy in the venue and what I saw on stage, I doubt that is the case. Punk rock shows should be something you get involved in, not just observe, and as an involved reviewer, this was a great show. Am I biased? Perhaps a bit, but my son who’s 17 fully agreed that this was a great show and it tends to take a lot to impress kids these days and he certainly wasn’t looking to relive his “glory days”.
Waiting for Black Flag to hit the stage was the hardest part. The show kicked off with a set by Ultraman, who are local punk legends (i.e., old guys). We saw them also open for Naked Raygun, so they seem to come out whenever “older bands” are in town. They’re decent, kind of melodic punk, along the lines of Naked Raygun and other melodic late-80’s punk bands, certainly listenable. Nice short set. Good for You is Greg’s new band and I think he does things like this so he can play twice in one night and assault people with trademark playing more than once. Typical Greg is the best way to describe Good for You. Awkward riffs that are somehow cool, painful guitar solos often very extended, lots of feedback, the usual for Greg. Unfortunately, they seem to play forever, although anticipation for Black Flag may play a role in my perception. When I saw Black Flag in 1986, Greg’s side project Gone was one of the openers and I felt exactly the same about them and they were all instrumental. Good forYou has vocals, so some of the songs, did actually work well, they just overstayed their welcome.
So, would I recommend seeing this version of Black Flag…yes, by all means, but I would say you need to get in the pit or close to it. Get someone else’s sweat all over you, get your sweat all over someone else, get pushed around, fear for you life once or twice during the night, save someone who falls. If you do all that, this will be a great show.
I’ve Had It
Blood and Ashes
Now Is The Time
It’s Not My Time to Go Go
Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie
Wallow In Despair
Down In The Dirt
Louie Louie (Richard Berry cover)