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30 years and 15 albums into their career, Bad Religion is perhaps the last standing relevant punk band from an era long past. What is astounding is that every album since 1988’s Suffer that features founding guitarist Mr. Brett Gurewitz sounds mostly the same. While the core of their musical mission has stayed the same as well as their So-Cal sound, their most recent albums have contained poppier elements. While unlikely to suddenly receive heavy mainstream airplay after three decades, their latest, The Dissent Of Man, contains some of their catalog’s most radio-friendly tracks; two of which were in their set: “Wrong Way Kids,” and the positively amazing “The Devil In Stitches,”.
Following the aforementioned Gurewitz’s departure after 1994’s classic Stranger Than Fiction, the songwriting suffered when singer Greg Graffin was forced to take up the lion’s share of the writing. While Graffin is a gifted and thought-provoking songwriter, it was the interplay between them that gave the albums their proper bite. The guitar playing was more than adequately replaced by Brian Baker, the man with perhaps the most impressive résumé in punk rock (Minor Threat, Government Issue, Samhain among others) but something did feel missing. Gurewitz eventually returned in 2002 and there has been no looking back as 2004’s The Empire Strikes First and New Maps From Hell from ’07 are among the band’s finest.
What brought them to Chicago was the yearly punk outing Riot Fest, which was expanded to several days and locales this year. Gurewitz was not in attendance but Baker and long-time diminuitive axeman Greg Hetson were more than up to the task. A three guitar line-up for a punk band is a bit of overkill. They came out roaring with Suffer‘s “Do What You Can,” containing the crowd-pleasing line “Break all the fucking rules and go to hell with Superman”. After ripping through “Sinister Rouge”, “Flat Earth Society”, and others, the crowd was whipped into the height of its frenzy with “I Want To Conquer The World,” and staple “21st Century (Digital Boy),”. They came armed with their anthems (“American Jesus”, “Infected”) but also showed just as much confidence in their recent work (“Los Angeles Is Burning”, “New Dark Ages”) before finally letting the crowd go with “Sorrow,”.
Hetson pulled double duty because 90 minutes before taking taking the stage with punk’s most cerebral frontman (Graffin), he stood (all 4 foot 6 inches of him) beside punk’s condundrum, Keith Morris. The Circle Jerks are different things to all people. Their debut album, Group Sex, is considered a classic but there are also plenty of detractors who cite stealing riffs and, in some cases, entire songs without giving proper credit. They played their requisite hits like “World Up My Ass,” and Morris even had some funny stage banter as expected. But the problem was the last impression they decided to leave with this largely younger generation crowd that had maybe never heard or seen Circle Jerks before. They finished with three Black Flag classics (“Revenge”, “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, and “Depression,”) that were written during Morris’s era in that band, none of which were previously “stolen”. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Morris-era Flag. But what are you saying about your band’s legacy when you finish that way? That was a bit disconcerting.
The point of Riot Fest is to celebrate punk’s legends and let up-and-comers share the stage and one thing became abundantly clear. Bad Religion continues to carry the punk torch and they show no signs of being ready to pass it.