There are reviews you wish would just write themselves. Peek behind the curtain, if you will, and see my struggle.
I really wanted to write an über-positive review of the Black Flag show at Pub Rock on Saturday, May 17. I wanted to write that the punk rock fury I was enamored with when I first heard the band back in the early '80s was back and as good as ever. I wanted to write all of that, but I can't.
Truth be told, the night was a series of peaks and valleys. I missed much of Playboy Manbaby's opening set, but I was pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm the Manbabies and their crowd seem to share with each other. I can understand why folks dig these guys, even if they aren't exactly my personal cup of tea. They are dynamic, and from the five or so songs I got to experience, they are learning their craft well. I'm excited to see what they become as they explore adding texture to their music. Genuine kudos to their drummer, Chad Dennis, who really stood out for me, and this was a night that was ruled by drummers.
After an almost interminable set change (odd because Brooklyn group Cinema Cinema is a freaking two-piece), we were treated to a musical collage of proportions I have not witnessed in quite some time. Cinema Cinema is on SST Records, which is owned by Black Flag's Greg Ginn, and that should have been warning enough that we were not in for any kind of standard fare. They were equally entertaining and confounding. The youngsters, who will apparently form a pit to almost anything when it's $29 to buy a ticket, kept up a steady stream of action in front of the stage, which seemed to really please guitar player and singer EV Gold. Again, though, drums stole the show. Cinema Cinema's Paul Claro is, as my new friend Chris put it, "a beast behind the kit." The man pounds the drums like he's either possessed by the ghost of John Bonham or has been geeking out way too much on
Vinnie Signorelli (Unsane, Swans, A Storm of Light) videos.
After Cinema Cinema finished its way-too-long set, there was another long set change, which was compounded by Pub Rock's shit storm of what I'm guessing was a Pandora playlist that seemed to repeat itself. I sincerely hope I was not the only one who noticed. The kids appeared to like it, though, and I caught one early-20s Mohican who was hanging close to us all night singing along with nearly all the boring songs, so maybe I'm the stupid one.
Finally, Black Flag took the stage. Even though the band's gear was onstage already, they proceeded to sound check. As an old punk rocker, I'm usually not the first person to complain about how sound is handled in clubs unless it is directly affecting my band or someone I really want to hear clearly, but the sound at Pub Rock left a lot to be desired. Black Flag sort of ambled into its set with a meandering jam that concluded with drummer Brandon Pertzborn leading them into "Rise Above."
Of course, the crowd, which was probably 60 percent over 21, went unsurprisingly ape shit for this blast of punk at its most primal. My own ears perked up after the first few bars of the song and my anticipation grew exponentially, only to be dashed by the lackluster delivery many of the songs after it. There were some good moments, for sure. Hell, Mr. Ginn has written some seriously great punk anthems, but unfortunately, the Rollins-era selections lacked any of the punch-in-the-face attitude that I was looking for.
It is unfair to compare new singer Mike Vallely to Henry Rollins, even if his voice resembles the aforementioned Rollins most closely on these later Black Flag era tracks. Of these songs, "Black Coffee," was the high point for me. I look forward to seeing how Vallely makes these songs more his own as he has with some of Black Flag's earlier catalog. Vallely is a commanding presence, yet he never really made the stage his during the set. This could be due to either his apparent intoxication or the relative new-ness of the quartet itself, but I would have liked to see him rule the stage and take charge of the crowd from the get go.
Pertzborn and his counterpart Tyler Smith (bass) performed admirably as the new rhythm section. I'm curious if Black Flag ever played twice with the same rhythm section? Maybe in the early '80s. Youngster Pertzborn is a killer drummer, absolutely driving the songs and also fun to watch. While Smith didn't really do anything to stand out, he played well and seemed to grow in his confidence as the night went on. Ginn did a great job of finding a top-notch duo to hold down the beat and round out Black Flag's sound.
As for Ginn, well, I've never seen the man seem so at ease on stage. He actually danced a bit with a young lady that got on stage early in the set. He may have done this mockingly, as I was not close enough to see the look on his face, but he was dancing, which is something I never thought I would see, nor do I want to see again. Perhaps he was at ease because they just had a relatively decent turnout at a high ticket price and they probably sold a ton of merchandise. Sadly, it does seem as if Black Flag is all about the cash grab at this point, even though the new band members really seem to be into what they are doing.
The vibe on the boozy side of the fence seemed to be one ranging from mild interest to severe disappointment. About 15 minutes into Black Flag's set, the crowd started to slowly trickle out. There was a fairly large contingent of Scottsdale Police hanging out outside.
All in all, I can't say Black Flag sucked. I also can't say they were great. They vacillated from being really good and on point to sounding like a somewhat talented Black Flag cover band. At least they played a pretty awesome version of "Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie." That almost made it worth the drive to Scottsdale.
Last Night: Black Flag, Cinema Cinema, and Playboy Manbaby at Pub Rock
The crowd: Tattoos. Lots of tattoos, and young people trying to sneak into the bar area.
Personal Bias: I love the Keith Morris era of Black Flag. This was not that.
Overheard: "I'd rather see FLAG."
Random Notebook Dump: PBR seems to really get people drunk. There were a lot of intoxicated people at Pub Rock.
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