Live Review: Descendents, “Black Flag”, Vandals, Dickies, Ill Repute at Santa Monica Civic 12/18/11

Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski.

Goldenvoice’s three-day 30th Anniversary blowout at the Santa Monica Civic came to a ballcrushing conclusion last Sunday night, with performances from a bevy of local bands old enough to have played for the owners of Coachella Corp. in their early days. Sets from Ill Repute, the Vandals, the Dickies and the headlining Descendents were full of short, sharp shocks, rapturously received, but it was a brief, unbilled set by three former members of Black Flag that really set off the detonator.

Somehow during a day away from the internet, I’d missed the rumors, so I was on my way back to the photo pit to shoot what I thought would be the Descendents when I started hearing the whispers, “Black Flag is playing next!” “No they’re not,” was my immediate reaction. But then a security guard asked me, “Who is this next band? I just got a text there’s some kind of special guest.” And I looked over to the right and saw Chuck Dukowski tuning a bass, and Keith Morris chatting with the monitor man behind the drum set, and just said “holy shit.”

I said it again six and a half minutes later when they left the stage. My instincts were partly correct – there was no Greg Ginn on stage and thus, most people would tell you, no proper Black Flag. But there was half of the Nervous Breakdown lineup, and the My War-era drummer, and Stephen Egerton from Descendents, an obnoxiously good punk guitarist, stepping in for He Who Cannot Be Bothered. Their lightning-fast romp through “Nervous Breakdown”, “Fix Me”, “I’ve Had It” and “Wasted” made for six of the most satisfying minutes I’ve ever had at a rock show.

Bill Stevenson, Keith Morris.

No, it wasn’t the real thing. That lineup of four people never played a show under the Flag name. But it was a lot more uplifting than Ginn’s own attempt at a Black Flag reunion back in 2004, a performance that saw the Hollywood Palladium ready to break out in a riot, not the good kind. Grown men with battle-scarred faces wept at that affair, watching Ginn, Dez, Robo and some kids from the neighborhood plow unconvincingly through the  catalog. Bizarrely, Ginn spent much of that show playing along to how own pre-recorded bass parts rather than find a bass player who knows all his old songs, which doesn’t seem like it would be very hard. It lasted almost two hours and felt like eight. It was not just weak, it was sloppy, something the original band never was, and if anything could have permanently snuffed out all desire for a proper reunion, the Benefit For Cats show was it.

By contrast, the mini-show at the Civic was pure power, an explosion that was over as soon as it began. Dukowski remains one of the most menacing figures ever to machine-gun an audience with a bass guitar. Not for nothing is Bill Stevenson one of the most respected drummers alive. And Morris came out looking ready to burn the world, then sang a song about it.

Keith - he's had it!

If you keep making that face, one day it's gonna get stuck that way: Stephen Egerton & Keith Morris.

There’s something primal about the Nervous Breakdown EP. Like the songs on Raw Power, Kick Out the Jams and Never Mind The Bollocks, they go deep, kick up emotions, especially within those of us who grew up on them. And in the hands of these four veterans, they burned white hot. I didn’t turn around to watch the crowd at the moment “Nervous Breakdown” began but I could feel a wave of energy at my back, and Youtube clips shot from the crowd show the Civic floor erupting into an over-boiling mass of humanity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band booed so intensely for stopping; Morris diplomatically stepped out to apologize that they hadn’t had time to rehearse anything else.

Milo, rocking out on professorial sabbatical.

Descendents’ headlining set – their third LA appearance during a rare year out of retirement – was nearly as potent at ten times the length. Milo Aukerman’s voice has been getting mixed reviews this year, but he sounded great here. Descendents are widely credited as the prototype for the kind of melodic pop-punk that’s been so popular lately, and even if they don’t pack the arenas like Rise Against (who acknowledged the debt by bringing them along as support act this year), their impact was plainly visible on this night. It was thrilling to see six thousand crazed youths, fifteen to fifty year old youths, banding together arm in arm and singing the lyrics to “Hope” like they meant EVERYTHING.

Stephen Egerton, Bill Stevenson of the Descendents.

But although they did lay a certain template for American pop-punk during the hardcore era, there’s a hostility and an embrace of the inner brat in the Descendents that gives them more toothsomeness than most of their followers. “Clean Sheets” and “Silly Girl” may have set the precedent for fast, fun songs bemoaning the singer’s insecurities, but it’s impossible to imagine the likes of Blink 182 pulling off a brilliant-idiot moment like “Der Wienerschnitzel” or “I Like Food.” They’re affirmations of the pleasures of geekery; they don’t get paid, they don’t get laid, but boy do they have fun with their own farts. Those songs are a big part of their personality, and keep the set from becoming too much of a bitch session.

Milo means it, man.

“I’m Not A Loser” brought the most feral reaction during a set that spanned their entire catalog. But the most poignant moment came during “When I Get Old” from 1996’s Everything Sucks, that rare comeback album that actually delivers the goods. As Milo sang “As I get past my prime, will I still like what I find?”, a gaggle of little kids watched from the side of the stage, and I have to imagine the crowd of wee ones included some of the band’s own. A couple of songs later, the rugrats came out front to take the mic and read off the commandments of eternal adolescence known as the “All-o-gistics” (“Thou shalt not suppress flatulence,” etc.) Milo then commanded the crowd “Thou shalt allow nothing to deter you in your quest for All!” and six thousand punks raised their fists to the sky and hollered “ALL!,” then broke into a foaming pit while the kids looked out at the fury unfolding before their eyes. It was cute and surreal and awesome.

Leonard Graves Phillips of the Dickies.

Opening with their locomotive take on “Silent Night”, the Dickies delivered their trademark mash of classic rock melody and high-speed precision. Guitarist Stan Lee and singer Leonard Graves Phillips have kept the band going pretty much continuously ever since, and its aesthetics were already locked in place well before I first saw them in 1985, doing pretty much the same setlist (though they did treat the core fans at the Civic to a rare hearing of “Magoomba.”) The Dickies are one of those bands you can always count on to meet your expectations exactly – I’ve seen them a dozen times ever since, and with the exception of one kind of toubled night at the Troubadour in the early nineties, all of the shows have been within +/- 1% in terms of accuracy and intensity. You could call it predictable but really, it’s kind of amazing that they can still keep it at that level, and timeless songs like “Gigantor” and “I’m OK You’re OK” will always be reliable mosh-pit movers.

Stan Lee of the Dickies.

Chris K., Leonard Graves Phillips and Eddie Tatter of the Dickies.

The Vandals’ choice not to dive deep into their seasonal Oi To The World LP, perhaps the very best punk Christmas album ever made, was a disappointment. Tracks like “Anarchyburger” (“Hold the government!”) are fun enough to chant along with, and they’ve kept the quality level respectable through their recent releases, but they seemed slighly untogether. Given the generally awful sound at Santa Monica Civic it’s possible I wouldn’t have even noticed, but they kept apologizing for failing to rehearse. Nevertheless, I always enjoy watching Josh Freese play the drums, every show is a masterclass in taste and timing. They did pull out Oi To The World’s title track, and connected powerfully on “Pat Brown”, so not a total writeoff.

The Vandals - sorry I missed the first three songs in the photo pit dudes! Did you see the bathroom lines back there? You shoulda took a longer break!

Sadly, I missed most of Nadrdcore veterans Ill Repute, but did hear a skippy rendition of “Clean Cut American Kid” on my way inside. They resurfaced a few months ago for the Nardcore Toilet Bowl in Ventura, so keep an eye out for further activity, as they were always a great time.

GV founder Gary Tovar (left) thanks the crowd.

All photos by Bob Lee for the Los Angeles Beat.

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