Hermosa Beach’s Black Flag erupted in the 1970s, becoming one of the most sonic, groundbreaking and instantly recognizable and iconic bands in the emerging U.S. punk and hardcore scene.
What followed were years of members coming and going, tours inviting a reaction from small town – as well as urban – police forces that viewed punk as a threat to the status quo, and saw Black Flag as the flag bearers of these feelings. Some of those pockets of the country had not been visited by bands previous to Black Flag’s incessant tour schedule.
There were albums that veered off into uncharted musical directions, inter-band drama between and, ultimately, a breakup — that if some stories are to be believed — resulted from founder and primary songwriter Greg Ginn fearing that vocalist Henry Rollins was becoming the face of the band.
Like any collective of individuals, Black Flag was due to experience a tumultuous course, the difference being that most bands are not as impressed and loved by future generations to the extent that Black Flag was. Despite having had multiple vocalists over the years, each one brought a distinct and recognizable aural rage to the music.
The band’s iconography would end up on more T-shirts and skin (in the form of tattoo ink) than nearly any other band who I can think of to this day. This iconography was present in spades at Jub Jub’s Thirst Parlor in Reno. Black Flag tattoos were visible in the audience, and every old song caused an explosion of fingers in the air and people singing along.
Unfortunately, what wasn’t present for the show was any of that rage, urgency, boundary pushing or tension that had made the band what was and is. As the only member of the band’s former era, Ginn was complemented by Mike Vallely on vocals. Vallely is an infamous skater with a history of pushing boundaries and not displaying a fear toward fighting back when needed. He had been a past musical collaborator with Ginn before taking over on vocals for Black Flag’s tours several years ago.
But from the opening bars of “Depression,” Black Flag was an uninspired version of its past selves. With very little onstage movement, an utter lack of charisma, not to mention Vallely having his back turned to the audience often, just about zero interaction with the crowd and vocals that were capable yet completely flat in terms of bringing anything to the songs, the band seemed to almost mime its way through the set list.
Even as the main songwriter for Black Flag, Ginn has never been afraid to take the band in directions that he knew would likely displease, if not completely confuse fans of the band. On Black Flag’s previous U.S. tour, Ginn expanded beyond the punk pigeonholing by playing a Theremin onstage in addition to guitar. But this tour seems that there is little being done to try to push, bend, expand or improve upon what they bring to stage each night.
Luckily, the audience was just excited to have the chance to hear the classic Black Flag songs, and the energy of the crowd held its fever pitch as the band poured through the set that included a range of their songs. “No Values,” “Police Story,” “Six Pack,” “Jealous Again” and “Revenge” stirred up the pit. It’s also worth noting that much of the crowd was too young to head into the club’s bar area.
So even if the group is missing the elements that made it into a band that can still fill up a room more than40 years after starting in the suburban fringes of L.A.’s South Bay, it will always be exciting to see that the urgency, the anger and the out-of-line era that Black Flag has come to represent is present today, which in a way has always been Black Flag’s biggest contribution to American culture, one that has always eclipsed the quality of their music to begin with.
— Shaun Astor