I’ve had the good luck of being able to attend a lot of concerts in the past two months. Maybe the stars are aligning, maybe karma’s finally paying out, or maybe it’s just my dumb luck, but the Toronto concert scene’s been very good to me as of late. I’ve been able to catch Against Me!, the Thermals, Millencolin, and a whole slew of others, but the high point of all these shows had to have been on October 14th, which saw the Bouncing Souls and Bad Religion taking up residence at the Kool Haus.
Despite taking place at one of my least favourite venues, this tour had the makings of something magical. It was a crisp fall evening, I was riding the coattails of a birthday high, and I was going to see two of my most favourite bands of my high school and university years. Short of getting into a fight, nothing could ruin the night. Oh wait! That almost happened. Way to live up to that “Boston Red Sox fans are dicks” reputation, stranger.
Anyway, I didn’t really know the opening band, Off With their Heads!, so I wasn’t too distraught that I missed their set. Maybe next time, fellas. I did arrive just after their set ended, meaning the crowd had dispersed from the stage so I could quickly and easily slip into the second row of meatbags along the stage barricade, an ideal position to watch my favourite New Jersey mooches do what they do best.
It’d been about three years since I’ve seen them perform, and not much has changed. Bassist Brian Kienlen still looks like a dirt bag (in a good way), vocalist Greg Attonito still bounces around wearing a shirt and tie, the Pete is still the Pete, (though without much stage banter this time around, sadly), and drummer Michael McDermott seems to have figured out how to play an entire set without having to take his shirt off (maybe he wasn’t giving 110%?). Their set clocked in at about an hour, which I thought was a little brief, though adequate. The setlist itself focused primarily on songs off of their seminal effort, How I spent My Summer Vacation, with a song or two from each of their other albums. The set featured staples like Manthem, True Believers, Sing Along Forever, their cover of Lean on Sheena, Kate is Great, No Rules, and the always-colourful East Coast! Fuck You!. It also featured a couple choice cuts off of their latest effort, Ghosts on the Boardwalk, in the form of Gasoline and Never Say Die (When You’re Young). Sure, they left out some classics, and it would have been nice to hear more off of Ghosts, but the fact was they had an opener slot, and they put on a great show. They’re still super-tight live, Greg’s voice is only getting better with age, and their songs really do stand the test of time. Considering they were one of my immediate top-three favourites while I was discovering punk rock, I don’t think my love for their music has ever faltered. They’ve never been the flashiest band, but they’ve always got that inescapable, intangible energy that makes it impossible to resist jumping around and singing along (forever).
Following the band with one Greg, I was treated to a band with two of them! I know it’s a garbage segue, but it’s the best I can do with the funds provided. Anyhow, Bad Religion was the headlining act, currently in the midst of celebrating 30 years as a band. I’d like to say things like, “it seems like yesterday they released their sophomore album”, but I can’t as they’ve been touring longer than I’ve been alive. Think about how strange that is. A musical group which I idolize to some extent has been in existence and actively creative for longer than I’ve been on this earth. I say “actively creative” because unlike a lot of other legacy acts, they still release new material to this day. In fact, they are also touring in support of their latest album, the Dissent of Man, which was released mere days ago. Sure, I think it’s only got 2 or 3 good songs, but it’s still new material, and maybe it’ll grow on me.
Having fifteen studio albums under their belts, one would think it would be difficult to put together a setlist that is representative of their entire catalogue. Bad Religion has found a way around that by callously omitting entire albums from consideration when piecing together the night’s entertainment. You won’t find anything off of Into the Unknown, No Substance, or The New America, but you will find helpings of every other album in their quiver.
Kicking off the evening with their first-ever single, We’re Only Gonna Die, and ending the regular set with the stellar American Jesus, the songs between the bookends were sure to please any BR fan in the house. Fans of their major-label years were treated to such gems as A Walk, 21st Century Digital Boy, and Recipe for Hate. Those who wanted to hear cuts from their post-major label period heard Sinister Rouge, New Dark Ages, and a handful of songs of their new album, most of which I found to be nothing more than momentum-killers. The crowd who were most catered to were those who were fans of their first album, How Could Hell be any Worse? and their “holy trinity”, SufferNo Control, and Against the Grain. You, I Wanna Conquer the World, Fuck Armageddon, this is Hell, it’s safe to say that Bad Religion knew exactly what the audience wanted to hear. I was even treated to two of my most favourite BR tunes, Atomic Garden and Do What You Want. Following a short jaunt off-stage, they returned to satisfy the churning mass of fans with a three-song encore consisting of Infected, Los Angeles is Burning, and Sorrow.
While it’s safe to say their 90-minute set was nothing short of phenomenal, it was their stage presence that I found most impressive. Singer Greg Graffin is a man who has a lot on his plate: he’s an active professor, he’s an author (with a newly released book, Anarchy Evolution), a family man, and on top of all this, he fronts one of the biggest punk rock bands of all time. He still sings with a verbose passion not seen in any other punk rock band, with spastic, lurching arm movements to match. However, one caveat regarding his live performances: his segues are some of the most drawn-out, cheesy, nonsensical things you’ll ever hear.
The rest of the band also shows no slowing in their performances, which is admirable because again, they’re OLD. They don’t call ’em Dad Religion for nothing, amirite? Bassist Jay Bentley looks from afar like he’s still pushing 30, guitarist Brian Baker continues to melt the faces of any fan unfortunate enough to take up residence in front of his amplifier, and what about guitarist Greg Hetson? Well, he still jumps around like a monkey, and I like that a lot. Much like the Bouncing Souls, this is a band that doesn’t need a fancy light show or pyrotechnics to make an impression. Their purposeful, yet spontaneous roaming around the stage while performing is both engaging and entertaining. The fact that they put on as good a show as they do with just a couple of backdrops and a couple spotlights is inspiring.
It is not surprising that I bill this night as nothing short of fantastic. What was displayed here was a sort of vision of things to come. You see Bad Religion doing their thing for the thirtieth year, and think, “wow, how do they do it? Can anyone else do it?” However, you would have already seen the Bouncing Souls, who are going on 23 years together now, and you think, “wow, these guys may just have it in them.” There wasn’t a “passing of the torch” on display that night, but there was a definite feeling that that moment was not too far off.
I fear the day that either of these bands do decide to pack it in, but I take comfort in the inevitability of that moment, considering at the end of the day, we’re only gonna die.