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Black Flag Returns

Seminal hardcore punk band journeys deep into the mud
Tim Stegall, 1:00pm, Fri. May. 24, 2013
photo by John Anderson
Black Flag’s Ron Reyes (c) and Greg Ginn at Infest, 5.23.13

Conversations at Infest last night were as entertaining as Black Flag itself: “See you at the edge of the pit!” “Dude, we’re seeing Black Flag! And you don’t have to shave your head for it!” “Goddammit, where are the chairs?! I can’t stand up this long anymore!” I fully expected to walk in on an illicit Geritol transaction in the men’s room.

Yep, after awhile, Black Flag’s first gig on American soil since 1986 felt like a reunion of Johnny Ramone Memorial High School’s Class of 1982: lots of old-school punk rock t-shirts bulging with beer guts and big hair (or what was left of it) that now needed Manic Panic as grey coverage. Lots of “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in years!” paired up with complaints of needing to be at work in the morning.

What they should’ve been complaining about was the sound man. A good, tight band with lots of power suffered one of the most diabolical sound mixes I’ve heard in a lifetime of witnessing shows in punk rock acoustic deathtraps. This was mud. This was muddier than mud. This was really loud murk that I’m still trying to clean out of my ears.

Greg Ginn’s free jazz/metal skronk guitar hardly sounded like it was even miked. It needed some serious high end. Instead, Mr. Concrete Eardrums at the mixing board kept driving Black Flag into a lower mid-range swamp and let them die there.

Which sucks for Black Flag. Ginn’s resuscitated lineup, insofar as what could be discerned from the murk, was a goddamned machine. They pounded furiously, with precision and the requisite aggression. They were hard enough to keep mohawked bodies flying from the stage like a New Wave theater outtakes reel.

Anyone fearing Ginn would veto the oldies and lead Black Flag through a solid set of the new songs he’s been writing for the last couple of years out in his Taylor compound with returning vocalist Ron Reyes needn’t have worried. Five new ones nestled in a hour filled with Ginn’s vintage navel-gazing, middle-finger romps: “Revenge,” “Jealous Again,” “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” “Rise Above,” “Police Story,” “Fix Me,” “TV Party,” etc., etc.

Despite the sonic gloom, drums and vocals blasted through the mix, and it was discernible that new bassist Dave Klein must have learned how to play from listening to classic Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Meanwhile, behind the kit, Gregory A. Moore was a one-man demolition squad. And Ron Reyes? He needn’t have worried about losing his voice in Italy. If that still bratty bark is his version of laryngitis, I can’t wait to hear him at full-roar.

In fact, as another old hand reported, Black Flag 2013 sounded better than all their early swings through Sixth Street’s Ritz (now the Alamo Drafthouse). And better than anticipated. Plus, for all the shaved heads, there was very little skinhead violence. Is it good or bad that a Black Flag show is now a less dangerous proposition? Probably a relief to the first generation fans bringing their children out Thursday. One vintage Emo’s bouncer remarked about how hard it was protecting his teenage daughter in the pit without her realizing that’s what he was doing!

Despite the crap sound mix and Greg Ginn unfortunately discovering the Theremin since their final tour, Black Flag remains one of the most intense, powerful bands rock & roll – punk or otherwise – has seen. Welcome back.

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