All photos by Bob Lee for the Los Angeles Beat.
Washington DC’s legendary Bad Brains hit LA last weekend for a sold-out show at the Fonda Theater in support of their new album Into The Future, and for a band that’s always been riddled with contradictions, this show turned to be right in character.
It’s a not very well kept secret that the Bad Brains of today is not exactly the same band we knew in the eighties. It’s the same four guys, and their basic ethos has never wavered in a 34-year career, but the explosive, motor-mouthed performer known as H.R. has left the building. Today’s H.R. is a considerably more mellow fellow, with a stage presence that owes more to more John Entwistle than James Brown. I mentioned to my friends after the gig that H.R. looked and sounded better than the last time I saw them, at House Of Blues four years ago, and they asked “What was he like LAST time?”
No, he doesn’t move much, which can be disorienting to anyone who ever saw him riding on top of a mob of humanity, whipping up a state of pandemonium by being the most frenzied person there. But at least he does sing the songs all the way through, if not with the same heart-stopping intensity, and it’s an improvement from the ass-dragging performance of mostly the same repertoire I saw at that House of Blues show. (The cloud of marijuana smoke coming from the stage immediately prior to the curtain rising was smaller for this show, maybe he was a bit more alert.) The change was most noticeable during the opening blast of “Sailin’ On”, “Right Brigade”, “Attitude” and “The Regulator”, where the audience’s enthusiasm was needed to shove the performances over the finish line when the singer occasionally faltered.
But he comes to life on the reggae numbers, for which his trademark silken vocals are spot-on, as well as the recent material from their latest album, Into The Future. The new songs were well matched to the overall vibe of the set, furious uptempo rockers with durable riffs and tempo-shifting breakdowns that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on I Against I.
Meanwhile, the band behind him still sound razor-sharp. The trio of guitarist Dr. Know, drummer Earl Hudson and bassist Daryl Jennifer are responsible for one of the most distinctive sounds in punk, with meaty, metal-worthy riffs in the hands of seriously capable players, fusion guys with an edgy streak.
Standing in front of Jennifer’s bass amp for most of the show, I became fascinated by how warm and liquid the tone was for how aggressive the music was, and the subtle micro-timing touches they apply even at 120 miles an hour. It’s a cliche that punk made musicianship unnecessary, but anyone who heard Bad Brains in their early days had to sense that amateurish screwing around wasn’t going to cut it if you wanted to play in this ballpark. Watching them up close is like seeing the old jazz masters, practitioners of the art that are doing things their students can only try to emulate.
Expectations for a present day Bad Brains show necessarily have to be adjusted from what they might have been thirty years ago, same with any group you can care to name. But in spite of any physical limitation, they continue to bring a dedication to their craft that’s inspiring to see.