Start lining up! As officially announced via Billie Joe earlier tonight, the great Pinhead Gunpowder returns to Gilman tomorrow night to play a benefit for Anandi Wonder, an old friend from Santa Rosa, longtime MRR shitworker and a wonderful person who’s been dealing with medical bills related to breast cancer.
Pinhead Gunpowder, Grass Widow and more play Friday, Feb. 12 at 924 Gilman in Berkeley. Starts at 7:30, $7-$10. All ages. Official confirmation here.
The last time Pinhead Gunpowder played Gilman, the first people got in line at 7:30am, and that was with the show being slightly hush-hush. This time around? There’s probably people camped out on the sidewalk right now.
UPDATE: Gilman is offering a complete free download of the show here.
Sometimes you just gottta believe.
As expected, the Internet was flooded with sleazy offers for tickets to Green Day’s last-minute show at the Fox Theater in Oakland last night, and unless you’d been quick, the situation looked grim. Luckily, between the irritating online postings asking for either $300 or for Asian girls to “send photos,” there came perpetual signs of hope on Craigslist. “Just bought 2 GA tix on Ticketmaster!” read a typical post. “Don’t pay the scalpers! Keep trying!”
Throughout the day, the faithful were rewarded with sporadic releases of tickets to the third of Green Day’s “secret shows”—all of them announced at the last minute, selling out instantly and premiering the band’s new album 21st Century Breakdown in its entirety.
I scored two quick-release tickets at noon yesterday, and drove frantically through rush-hour traffic with my wife to Fremont to pick up my niece. We got to the theater right at 8pm, bought one of seemingly plenty of extra tickets outside on the sidewalk, and voilá—I was suddenly standing with some people who’d flown in from Massachusetts, six rows away from a band I’ve loved since I first saw them opening for Nuisance, All and MDC in 1989 at the River Theater in Guerneville, CA.
Obviously, much has changed in Green Day’s world since 1989. At that first show in Sonoma County, they made jokes about handing out hundreds of joints to the crowd, sold hand-silkscreened tuxedo shirts stolen from their high school marching band for $3, and had just one record—a fantastic Lookout 7” called 1,000 Hours that my friends and I listened to obsessively. (We weren’t alone—just a month later at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa, crowds stormed the stage to sing along haphazardly with “Dry Ice.”)
20 years later, bouncers now keep an eye on pot smoking, T-shirts are now sold for $35, and Green Day, of course, now have plenty more than one record out. But the key magic is still there. As evidenced in their two-hour-plus show last night, Green Day is among a small handful of bands who have navigated the waters of success with a clear head and, in spite of the rigors of fame, have only gotten better over the years.
Case in point: the new album premiered last night.
At the doors of the beautifully restored art-deco Fox Theater, patrons were handed a Playbill-like program detailing the three acts of the new record, complete with author credits and libretto, while a large tragedy/comedy curtain hung over the stage. It’s hard to assess an album on only one listen, but 21st Century Breakdown is, as expected, a sister sequel to American Idiot. It loosely follows a story about being disillusioned with modern life in America, with recurring characters and themes. It’s pensive, it’s angry, and it unabashedly swipes snippets from the great catalog of rock ‘n’ roll and parlays them into anthems for the disenfranchised.
Judging from last night’s impassioned performance, at least four songs are utterly dumbfounding in their greatness (“Before the Lobotomy,” “Last of the American Girls,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” “Last Night on Earth”), and several, like “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl),” toy with completely new styles.
There are echoes of Green Day’s past: “Christian’s Inferno” starts with a rant straight out of the bridge to “Holiday,” “East Jesus Nowhere” cribs the chorus from “Welcome to Paradise,” and at one point Green Day stone-cold lifts the outro to “Brain Stew.” At the same time, the album makes musical and lyrical reference to Van Morrison, Gogol Bordello, the Who, Screeching Weasel, Barry McGuire, Wilco, John Lennon, P.I.L., the Ramones, Frank Sinatra, the Replacements, Tom Petty, Rancid, Otis Redding, the Misfits and Francis Scott Key.
One thing the album is missing, sadly, is a sense of fun. American Idiot was written and recorded quickly when the master tapes for their “real” album were stolen, giving it a spontaneous immediacy. 21st Century Breakdown took five years to make, and it shows. It is labored and serious, full of dramatic pauses and piano segues, and it teeters on the pretentious. I wish it didn’t. During a ’70s soft-rock piano ballad complete with falsetto vocals, an audience member held up a homemade sign reading “Play at 924 Gilman,” and it was painfully obvious how far the band has “grown” since their constant presence at said club. (Billie played there last year with Pinhead Gunpowder; read about it here.)
A drastic explosion in the excitement level came after the short intermission, when Green Day played older songs for another hour, and I got blissfully lost in the sweaty fray of people. “American Idiot” turned the stoic crowd into a swarming tornado; “Jesus of Suburbia” was dedicated “to everyone down at Gilman Street,” and “Going to Pasalacqua,” “She,” “Longview” and “Welcome to Paradise” thrilled longtime fans. The band was obviously making the set list up on the spot—during “Minority,” Billie asked, “I don’t know, should this be the last song?”
It wasn’t, of course. The show’s final song, the epic “Homecoming,” came with a warm explanation from Billie about the East Bay. Clearly, the band was happy to play for a hometown crowd (including Jello Biafra!), and at the end, he stood at the front of the stage, repeatedly opened his arms to the audience, and mouthed the words “I love you, I love you, I fucking love you!” over and over.
The feeling was mutual.
More Photos Below.
By the time the doors opened for the Thorns of Life show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco tonight, the line of 300 people had completely wrapped around the venue. Only 110 people made it in—including notable attendees Billie Joe and Fat Mike—and those lucky few who got to see the San Francisco debut of the most highly anticipated band of the new year weren’t disappointed.
In short? Thorns of Life were beautiful and amazing.
I’ve written about Thorns of Life before, albeit on a purely speculative basis. I’d refused to watch the YouTube videos, as untainted by advance coverage as possible so as not to deny myself the enjoyment of in-person discovery. Patience is a virtue. The show was outstanding.
My God, the songs are good. This is the first thing that matters. The songs are good, some of them downright blissful. I take back my speculation about Aaron not being able to play ballads. I also take back my speculation that Blake might be retreating to relive a former self circa 1994. I’ve never been so glad to have been wrong. The songs are good.
Lyrics are a huge part of any Schwarzenbach band, and the ones I could make out ranged from the sentimental (“We tend to fill the void with hope and longing”) to the image-laden (“Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona. What the fuck?”) to the referential (“We listened to the Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin.’ And even though it wasn’t appropriate, it’s such a beautiful song.”) to the political (“Al-Qaeda is in Washington, why aren’t you fighting them?”) (I paraphrase). Blake mentioned at one point that all of his songs were about suicide and unrelenting misery; that he’d now had enough distance from graduate school to look at the subject of suicide objectively, and that he felt a real dialogue needed to occur in society about suicide.
Out of 13 or 14 songs, the band delivered alternating moments of elation, poignancy, humor, dejection, ennui and triumph. One, perhaps called “The First Time,” ranks among Blake’s best songwriting ever, and he closed the set with a solo song that between its lines about postcards and towers even utilized a harmonica and, after some deserved dissing of the capo, a capo.
When it was all over, I felt so completely and gloriously happy that Blake is making music again. There was a long time there where it looked as if he’d played his last show, and as clusters of exhausted people shuffled past me, smiling and reveling, I savored the annihilation of that worry.
I ran into a friend afterwards who muttered that the crowd was irritating and that too much hype had killed any possible positive experience the show could have offered. I disagree. Yes, people shouted Jawbreaker references (“Hey, look, it’s a new band,” Blake warned). Yes, there were superfans showing off their pictures taken with Blake. Yes, it was a miracle if you could get in. Yes, some people got a little too excited and drunk. Yes, Fat Mike hopped on stage afterwards to talk to Blake and Aaron, presumably about recording. Yes, there were tons of cameras out when the band hit the stage. These things happen.
But hype that forms inorganically with no actual basis can be smelled like the shit that it is from a mile away. The atmosphere surrounding Thorns of Life is different in that it’s based on something very real. To wit: A huge subculture of people, all with a longstanding personal connection to the music and writing and art that Blake and Aaron and Daniela have created in their time. I don’t believe for a second that the majority of people at the show were there because it was the “it” thing to do. I believe that most people who were there—people like Kyle, Avi, Brian, April, Tony, Brandt, Chris, Billie Joe, Jerry, Haley, Ivy, Jason, Fat Mike, or Martina—most of these people are fans, just like me, who have followed and loved and been touched by great art, and who are compelled to check in and see what the creators of that art are up to.
As for the couple hundred people who got turned away tonight at the door, rest assured that what Thorns of Life are up to is thrilling and great, and they more than live up to the intense curiosity that so many people understandably share.
UPDATE: Thorns of Life played four days later at Adam’s basement in Santa Rosa; my interview with Blake is here.
“One request: ditch the cell phones and digital cameras. If they weren’t here, fuck ‘em.”
Apparently something happened tonight called the Grammy Awards, a bloated, self-congratulatory clusterfuck which, as a music journalist, I should probably attempt to care about. But even if for some sadomasochistic reason or another I followed the Grammys like a hawk, I’d have to opt instead for witnessing an event infinitely more electrifying and significant: Billie Joe Armstrong’s grand return to the stage at 924 Gilman Street.
Gilman in itself holds a big place in my heart; from 1990-1995 I played there, slept there, volunteered there, and went to more shows there than I can count. And of the 20 or so times I saw Green Day—including the time they fulfilled a request to play my own high school in 1991—none was as special as seeing them at Gilman, because it was and still is the most miraculous and amazing club the world has to offer.
Billie Joe, now a decorated Grammy alumnus himself, suffered the psychological blow of not being able to perform again at Gilman—essentially his home and breeding ground for six formative years—when Green Day signed to Warner Bros. in 1993 (the club explicitly bars major-label bands from its lineups). In a number of songs and interviews, he made the scars public; yet skirting back to the venerable warehouse fifteen years later, his less-mentioned but no-less-brilliant “other band” Pinhead Gunpowder was added onto tonight’s hush-hush Sunday evening show. (Judging from the long line that snaked around the block as the doors opened at 5pm, the news that Billie Joe was playing didn’t exactly escape the wildfire of Message Boards and MySpace postings like the organizers hoped.)
Pinhead Gunpowder does not play a lot of shows. In fact, they’ve only played 17 shows in 17 years. And though the band had just finished up a round of Southern California dates the previous week, tonight’s show carried a particular historical weight.
“We’ve played some shows, like down in San Pedro, the kinds of shows I haven’t played in 15 years,” he explained to me, hanging around the side door before the doors opened. “It’s been fuckin’ great. But this place…”—he paused, stared nervously at the club—“I haven’t played here in a long time.”
Playing Gilman again for Billie Joe is probably a lot like getting dumped by an amazing girlfriend, only to have her call up years later out of the blue for a roll in the hay; strange, kind of awesome, and more than slightly nerve-racking. Nearby, some people arrived with video equipment; “What are they filming for?” asked Billie Joe, no doubt concerned that his private communion with Gilman could be turned into a documentary critique.
But if the love showered on him tonight was any barometer, then Billie Joe needn’t have worried. Two girls at the front of the line, who’d arrived at 7:30am, came around the corner and approached him; some gushing-adolescent conversation and a couple of hugs later, the girls ran back to the line shaking, shuddering, and coming precariously close to throwing up in excitement.
And onstage, after setting up his own equipment and adjusting his own mic stand, Billie Joe had the world in his hands, from the opening chords of “Find My Place” to luminous chestnuts like “MPLS Song” and “Losers of the Year.” Not a drop of animosity remained from 1993. Bodies crushed, heaved, and lurched as one in the wonderfully chaotic fray of the crowd, where I and hundreds of others tried to stay on two feet. Gilman staffers on either side of the stage, most of them in grade school when Green Day were banned from Gilman, all sang along.
“Welcome home!” someone yelled.
“Welcome home!” replied Billie Joe, in a sort of gleeful amazement at the phrase, and then began singing, “Welllll-come hoooo-me, wellll-come hoooo-me!”
Obviously enjoying the shit outta the occasion, Billie jumped around like a madman, quoted John Denver and Don McLean lyrics, and slashed away at his black Gretsch guitar. Through “Reach for the Bottle,” “Before the Accident,” and, in a dedication to Pinhead Gunpowder’s old guitarist Mike Kirsch, “Future Daydream,” he couldn’t have appeared more inspired on Gilman’s well-worn stage. Being tangled in the sea of people up front, I swayed and sweat and gasped for air along with every goddamn beautiful moment of it all.
After “Mahogany,” the lights came up, the side door opened, and Billie Joe Armstrong ambled out onto Eighth Street. I caught up with him, steam emanating from his drenched body, in the same spot where beforehand he’d expressed uncertainty.
“That,” he told me, “was great.”
P.S. Pinhead Gunpowder brought out a lot of faces I haven’t seen in a while. Jesse Luscious, Robert Eggplant, Paul Curran and Patrick Hynes: nice seeing you all. You too, Aaron. And massive kudos to the opening band, Zomo, who were almost as great as the headliner.