On June 6th 2013 I did something that I once thought would have been impossible without the assistance of a time machine with the dials set to Southern California circa 1980—I went to see Black Flag live.(or at least one reunited incarnation of the band.)
In the summer of 2013, two co–occurring Black Flag reunions hit the road. How is that possible? It’s possible because Black Flag were not like Slayer. They did not have one set, seemingly permanent, lineup year after year. (note, with the noted exception to this with Slayer being a different drummer on God Hates Us All in 2000) Before releasing Damaged, the band’s first full length album, Black Flag had already went through three lead singers. With the exception of founding guitarist Greg Ginn,and later Henry Rollins, membership in the band was mutable.
A multitude of musicians passed through the ranks of the mighty Black Flag during their eight year existence,(1978-1986) from drummer Chuck Biscuits, whose time with Black Flag was a little over six months, to the stable fixture of Henry Rollins.
The dueling Black Flag derivative bands hitting the road this summer are FLAG, which features Keith Morris, Chuck Dukoski, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson.
The other Black Flag reunion actually retained the original moniker with half of the lineup that recorded the 1980 Jealous Again ep/ mini album– being Ron Reyes on vocals and Greg Ginn on guitar, along with Dave Klein from Screeching Weasel on bass and Greg Moore on drums(who played drums alongside Ginn in the band Gone)
The Reyes/Ginn lineup came through Lawrence, Kansas on June 6th, , which marked the first show of the tour. The Black Flag Reunion of 2013 was starting off in Lawrence, and no California dates were listed on the tour itinerary. WHAT?? Was this an alternate dimension?? If so, I was glad to be transported back in. It always feels like home.
The crowd is exactly what you would expect, from burly arms fully sleeved in ink to fresh faced teens. I even spotted a couple with their grade-school aged daughter with them.
I mean it was the kick-off of a Black Flag reunion. I imagine a lot of the people at the show in the same age-range as I thought this was a moment they would never see. In the weeks leading up to the show, it felt so surreal telling people I was going to a Black Flag show.
You could feel the intensity, the anticipation in the air, but it was one of those nights where I wish life had a fast-forward button: because the opening act did nothing for me.
A common question uttered outside of the Granada that night was “Who is the opening act?” I think it was one of those nights were nobody even cared, but there was an opening act—they were called “Good For You.” The band was one of Greg Ginn’s side projects. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into it, slower tempo, kind of like that sludge–metal stuff meets bad 70s’ arena rock with a lot of guitar noodling– and absolutely no movement from the crowd!
When Black Flag took the stage it was another story. The band walked on stage greeted by a sea of cheers and howls from the audience.
Lead vocalist Ron Reyes stalked to the center of the stage and shouted “IT’S NOT MY IMAGINATION…I’VE GOT A GUN ON BACK.” Seconds before the opening chords were laid down by Ginn, the crowd responded by finishing his words and shouting back the familiar refrain. It’s a line most diehard punk fans know as the spoken intro to “Revenge.” The second cut off Jealous Again. The song is a minute long blast about a desperate desire for vindication soaked in vitriolic rage. “We’re gonna get revenge/You won’t know what hit you/ We’re tired of being screwed/REVENGE…REVENGE!!!”
The opening riffs of the song exploded like a distilled sonic boom! And the familiar ritual of the pit was underway, as bodies, Doc Marten boots and Adidas sneakers, skinheads and spiked hair all mashed, crashed, and bashed in a brutal unity, and yes the pit was hectic, and of course, I had to enter. I badgered a friend to go up front with me. He said he would rather just watch the band, explaining how a decade of working roofing had put excess stress and strain on his body. Even though I’m not 19 anymore, when I’m at a show, which has now become a rarity, I’m still compelled to charge into the pit. The reaction is akin to a holy roller “getting the spirit.” When I hear an amplified sound that strikes my fancy, I can’t sit still.
The songs that received the most enthused response were the classics, “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie,” “Police Story, “”No Values,” “Jealous Again,”” TV Party.”
The most explosive audience reaction came when the band was more than halfway through their set and launched into “Rise Above,” the first song on Damaged, Black Flag’s epochal 1981 album, the album that brought the vocal fury of a young Henry Rollins to the forefront. As Ginn’s feedback and abrasive riffage roared, the crowd went berserk, and the pit was transformed into a free-for-all, as non-lethal projectiles and bodies were launched into the air.
About three quarters into their set came the biggest surprise of the night: When I heard the creeping, ominous arpeggios leading into “Can’t Decide,” I was shocked shitless– because that’s a song from deep into the Rollins era. The song was from Black Flag’s 1984 album My War. (though an earlier version is on a much bootlegged 1982 demo) I didn’t at all expect to hear “My War” material that night. “Can’t Decide” is a heavy song about heavy emotional turmoil. The song’s tempo is not the full on blitz of “Padded Cell,” but it’s not the thick as molasses dirge of “Nothing Left Inside.” The song trudged along with the mid–tempo jogging pace of the Ramones colliding with Black Sabbath, and experiencing that live was like being hit by a bulldozer.
They closed with “Louie, Louie,” and that was it. After making my way from the performance area, I literally collapsed. My legs felt like rubber, and I collided with the floor. Maybe the collision was due to the can of nasty-ass Steel Reserve, followed by a few pints of Guinness, then a couple of Boulevards, rounded off with some shots of whiskey thrown in for good measure.? Maybe it was the after-effect of being pummeled by the sonic ferociousness of Black Flag live?
As debate rages on the interwebs over which reincarnation, Flag or the Ginn/Reyes reunion remains true to the character of the old school days, I could honestly care less. Both versions contain members who left their mark with one Black Flag lineup or another back in the day, and the Ginn/Reyes version of Black Flag left me blown away.