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Bad Brains @ House of Blues 09/26/07

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The last time I saw DC punk icons Bad Brains play live was in a big hall somewhere in Long Beach or Pedro circa 1987. HR still plays solo projects, and sometimes they come around billed as Soul Brains, playing mostly reggae. Wednesday night was a rare opportunity to see the original lineup play their punk rock catalog.

Their new record, Build a Nation, produced by Adam Yauch, is definitely reminiscent of their early stuff. Bad Brains play punk and they play reggae. They don't mix punk and reggae into a melange of ska-dance hits as many OC bands did in the 90s. The songs are either punk or they are reggae, and they are pure. The punk songs on Build a Nation have the same relentlessness, the same chugging rhythms and familiar 8-note patterns that we have come to expect from the genre. Frequently Bad Brain's bass and guitar play the same notes, with the drummer hitting one beat per note, so the entire band achieves a unison of sound. The reggae on the new album explores a little more dub, but keeps to the Bad Brain's slow, steady reggae beat.

Wednesday night's show at the House of Blues was a good mix of oldies, with just a few songs from the new album. They dipped heavily into Rock for Light and I against I, which is exactly what I was hoping for. There was also a high punk to reggae ratio. They came out strong with I Against I, and then just stayed with the fast and mid-tempo (creepy-crawl slamming tempo) songs for much longer than most bands would (or could).

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The sweaty crowd was just itching to slam, but they were packed in so tightly they were unable to get a good circle going. So they mostly pushed in waves, back and forth with the tide, as Bad Brains chugged through Sailin' On, Right Brigade, Let me Help and Attitude. They didn't slow it down until about two-thirds of the way through the show, when they really slowed it down, with two long reggae songs back-to-back. Some of the reggae tunes played were I and I Survive, Give Thanks and Praise and Jah Love. But Bad Brains soon whipped the pit back into a frenzy with crowd favorite, Banned in DC. They ended the night with Re-ignition and did a one-song encore, the romantic ballad Pay to Cum.

The band was as tight and as musically skilled as ever, but HR has brought it down a notch - and an octave. Who can blame him, though? He must be in his mid-50s. Who can head-bang from the waist, swinging all those heavy dredlocks anymore? He stood distant, cooly playing his guitar with shades on all night. No more running, jumping, and inciting the audience. I've never seen HR play a guitar before, except maybe once in my friend's kitchen in Pedro (That party is still a little blurry). To my knowledge, he didn't play guitar on any of the albums either.

It seems I am not the only one to be taken aback by HR's relaxed stage presence. In HR's defense, apparently Darryl said, "See how beat up my bass is after all these years? HR ain't got no bass. All he's got is his body." After a controversial show at CBGB's, here is what Dr Know had to say to Late Night Wallflowers

Late Night Wallflowers: On the first night, some people in the crowd were reacting violently against HR's passiveness and mild temperament on stage. Did it surprise you to see such a reaction from a crowd that minutes prior to was moving around even before you strummed a single chord? Dr Know: Nothing in Bad Brains surprises me after twenty-five years,for real. When I'm on stage, I'm there to enlighten, energize the fans, with no time for nonsense or wondering what [the] "next ma'fucka" is doing.

Whereas HR has mellowed his stage presence, Dr Know was on fire, running back and forth to the drumset, headbanging all the way to the floor. The drummer, Earl Hudson, kept up the tempo, albeit a little slowly. Re-ignition was definitely slower, which some thought made it more menacing. Darryl Jenifer stayed in the shadows, giving a rock-solid performance on bass as always.

Their soundman is a real pro. The punk songs sounded a little muddy when I was standing under an overhang on the side of the speakers. Up in the balcony, the sound was cleaner. The reggae songs were more spacious so the sound was more distinct, and he was an expert with the dub effects, especially the drum echoes.

Even with things slowed down and stepped back a litttle, they put on a show that I challenge any young rockers to try to match. I could not have asked for a better set list (OK maybe I would have added Sacred Love). Even though their performances are no longer seminal, they are at the very least historic.

The scene was definitely a sausage-fest. Guys kept checking me out, and I was thinking, "Is sweaty a good look for me?" Then I noticed that there were at least 20 guys to every girl. We saw a few people we knew - Dave Teague and Travis Johnson of The Dickies were there, as was artist Raymond Pettibon. Big Jamie, my favorite local club bouncer, was hanging out at the bar. Later, as we were walking to the car, we ran across The Pope who had been stuck outside. He asked if we had seen Jamie, "He has my ticket in his pocket!" Uh oh. He asked desperately, "Was the show good?" We said, "Nah, you didn't miss much. Nothing special."

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Actor Michael Rappaportgetting a purple nurple:

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All photos by Elise Thompson for LAist

(Thanks so much to everyone at House of Blues, especially Nancy Farber. You rock!)