Flag, the new band made up of former Black Flag members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson along with Descendents/ All guitarist Stephen Egerton, made its public debut on Thursday night to an invited audience of friends at the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge. Here at the place where Black Flag played its first show in 1979, the crew inspired something close to mayhem, at least in the hearts and minds of the people who came to witness it. No one went to the hospital, but took a beating tonight.
Maybe it wasn’t the perfect venue; a stage would have been nice. Crammed into a corner on the floor, the momentum of their invited guests pushed them literally up against the wall, so severe was the need to experience this music physically. Grey hairs who minutes earlier had been politely conversing about abstract art were transformed, pushing into each other with fists in the air, giving voice to their discontent, loudly.
It’s been a while since these songs have been played live quite like this. Even by the time I was seeing Black Flag in the mid-80s, they weren’t doing this anymore. It’s a particular and distinct flavor of punk rock that has been left unplayed by its practitioners since they did it; no Flag lineup ever lasted more than about a year, and each one tried to be true to itself rather than the band’s history, which was admirable. But it also means that unless you were into this band in about 1982 or earlier, you’ve never seen most of these songs played live by their creators.
The elephant missing from the room is band founder Greg Ginn, who has officially relaunched the Black Flag brand this year for the first time in twenty-five years, recording and touring with a new lineup, which includes 1979-era vocalist Ron Reyes and some other dudes. That group will be playing here next month, and we’ll reserve judgment till we hear it. Certainly without him there, there’s a fundamental authenticity missing that ensures this is always going to be “Flag” and not “Black Flag”.
But there’s no need to question authenticity when getting hit by “Revenge” followed by “Fix Me” followed by “Clocked In,” as sung by Keith Morris, who despite recent health concerns is sounding every inch as petulant and obnoxious as we was on those records. That’s authentic. So is Chuck Dukowski, dropping hundred-pound bricks on his amp and thrusting his bass like a bayonet at anyone unfortunate enough to stand in its path. So is Bill Stevenson, shredding drumsticks into piles of sawdust with Bonham-like power and impeccable timing at lightning speed. So is Dezo when he takes the mic late in the set for “all the drinking songs,” serving up “Six Pack” and “Thirsty And Miserable” with appropriate venom. Egerton and Cadena serve up a wall of guitars as thick as you remember, and Egerton plays some of those solos so note-perfect, Ginn may someday consider hiring him to teach him his old leads, like Tommy Thayer once did for Ace Frehley.
As expected, the set list was predominantly made up of First Four Years and Damaged material, though they did extend as late as Dukowski’s “My War.” (I heard a snatch of the riff from “Modern Man” during the band’s soundcheck but it was skipped during the show.) I’m not alone in considering this early period the most exciting and totally satisfying Black Flag era, and to hear those songs played in succession, that well, was kind of overwhelming. It’s the first time that I’ve bared my teeth and clawed my way through a slam pit to get close to the stage since I can remember.
Even just two or three people back from the band, it was impossible to see much besides the tops of the musicians’ heads once in a while, but as the band broke into “Nervous Breakdown”, the crowd exploded outward, and for a brief shining moment, I caught a glimpse of all five of them, trapped in one of those immortal poses you might see in an Ed Colver photo, with the blur of a stray torso flying overheard. And then BAM!, the two sides of the room ran into each other again, and it was back to staring at backs of heads and keeping an eye out for the occasional crowd surfer. (One bonus: no stage means no stage diving, a benefit for us tall dudes.)
It was kinda wild but I didn’t even see any bloody noses. It looked like a glass got broken, possibly a picture frame off the wall, but the overall vibe was friendly and celebratory. Thank goodness the cops had the good sense to stay away. (Cops today probably grew up listening to Black Flag, probably drive around singing along and changing the words to “this fucking city/ run by me/ I take the rights away from/ all you kids!”) Nothing is what it used to be, not even the audience; it was downright heartwarming to watch punkers form a human barricade around Dez’s mom to keep her from having to fend off crowd surfers.
But we got an experience tonight that I can only liken to what Proust must have went through when he smelled that smell that unlocked a million memories. We felt it again. We felt sixteen again, were scared of the bomb again, were ready to risk injury for rock and roll again. It was like a recovered memory, an involuntary response to stimulus.
Should you have the chance to see them live at next week’s Punk Rock Bowling event or some other kind of festival later in the year, well, I’d have to recommend the experience. Nostalgia be damned, this band is giving performances that are alive right now, this minute, and the songs, despite their age, are still relevant – who HASN’T been about to have a nervous breakdown recently?