Imagine, at the height of their popularity, catching a set from the Who down at your local pub. Or a show from U2 in one of Dublin’s infamously gritty nightclubs rather than some flash, Pop Mart-like extravaganza. You’d feel like you’d gotten away with something, wouldn’t you? Like you and the small, amped-up horde around you had just witnessed history: something fleeting, rare, accessible but to a scant few who could legitimately claim that they’d “seen them back when.” Most important: You’d never forget that moment as long as you lived, mere feet away from an all-powerful rock tsunami usually viewed through the safe remove of binoculars at one of America’s countless sports arenas where such spectacles are typically scheduled for the benefit of the suburban masses. (And the bank accounts of the artists in question, of course.)
This is what it was like to see Green Day at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom (max capacity: 600) as the band warms up for its first world tour in three years later this summer. Having launched the dense and dramatic 21st Century Breakdown straight into the mouth of the recession late last week, the band has embarked on a barnstorming tour of New York, scheduling club gigs at the Bowery, Webster Hall and Tribeca’s P.C. Richard & Son Theater as well as a free show in Central Park (as part of its appearance on Good Morning America). Sure, it’s a savvy marketing move at a time when the recording industry is desperate for anything remotely resembling a “must have” release and corresponding tour, but by making a band that can easily sell out 50,000-seat stadiums around the world accessible to contest winners and fan-club members at small venues, the folks at Warners are cleverly cementing the myth of Green Day as The People’s Band, which tonight’s gig did absolutely nothing to contradict. For nearly two hours, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and the handful of friends who serve as the expanded lineup for Green Day’s upcoming tour played their new album and a set of choice encores as though their very lives depended on it.
The band’s first set consisted exclusively of songs from 21st Century Breakdown, an 18-track, hour-plus sprawl that will likely take months if not longer to settle in with the band’s faithful (even as radio gravitates almost immediately to the focus track, the now-ubiquitous anthem “Know Your Enemy”). A running narrative loosely based on the trials and travails of a young couple—Christian and Gloria—on the run from the economic meltdown and societal dissolution that surrounds them in a post-Dubya U.S. of A., it’s a shaggy summary of everything the band is capable of doing from a songwriting and performance point of view. You have your trademark hammer-down stompers (“American Eulogy,” “Horseshoes And Handgrenades,” “Murder City”), Beatlesque moments of melodic majesty that would completely shock the troops who once claimed these guys as their own back in their Gilman St. days (“Before The Lobotomy,” “21 Guns”), power pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cheap Trick album (“Last Of The American Girls”) and moments that are more Meat Loaf or Elton John than punk (“Restless Heart Syndrome”). It’s clear that Green Day is enjoying the act of playing together again; Armstrong was decked out in a sheriff’s getup (complete with silver star and bullet-casing belt) and whipped around the stage like a man with his pants on fire, marching in time one minute, windmilling like Pete Townshend the next, high-fiving the fans down front and recklessly throwing himself into the crowd at one point. Like American Idiot before it, this is an album that will give the band plenty of elbow room for experimentation and expansion in a live setting, so I fully expect these songs to take on a very different set of dimensions by the time the tour is about midway through its worldwide run.
That said, this was an exclusive fan-club show (thank you Sam from Craigslist!), and it was during the encore set that the real action took place. The band playfully grabbed songs from the recesses of its back catalog, from early favorites such as “Going To Pasalacqua,” “She” and “Longview” (the latter a crowd participation exercise in which a heavily tattooed young woman was hauled up onstage to sing the song in Armstrong’s stead) to latter-day hits such as “Minority,” “American Idiot” and a 10-minute take on what I maintain is Green Day’s finest recorded moment, “Jesus Of Suburbia.” Drummer Cool was even given the mic (after Armstrong took a moment to teach him the chords, to the amusement of the rest of the band) to sing his Kerplunk!-era country joint “Dominated Love Slave,” causing convulsions in the crowd and a bemused Armstrong to note, “Oh my god, that just really happened.” But for me, the moment that best illustrated what this band is all about and how far it’s come in its 21 years together was a medley of old-time rock and soul: “Shout!” “(You’ve Got The Cutest Little) Baby Face” and “Stand By Me,” performed while the band was on its collective backs onstage, having commanded the crowd to “get down low” for the finale. The show periodically took on the flavor of a family reunion; one kid down front caught Armstrong’s eye, prompting him to tell the crowd, “I haven’t seen this guy in four years! Where have you been, college? In Buffalo? Oh man, that’s almost as bad as Oakland!” Green Day is in its element in an intimate live setting such as this one, connecting with its legion of fans, sweating its way to salvation and generally having one helluva good time in the process.
It’s safe to say I won’t forget this night for a good long while. And I’ll bet there are about 600 others who streamed into the New York night saying exactly the same thing.