Bands playing reunion shows have a tough gig (only made tougher if the band has posthumously grown in popularity). How do you recapture the power and energy of something you did five, 10 or 15 years ago? How do you make your old work relevant without seeming like a blatant cash grab? And for those bands that have grown, how do you translate a live show that may have only seen 50 to 100 people at a time to a venue 20 times that size? Refused was facing all these questions and more. Luckily for the crowd at the Warfield, they didn't come alone. Helping shoulder the weight of their epic reunion show the band enlisted the Bronx and the Hives to help make an experience they hoped fans wouldn't forget.
Kicking off the evening was the Bronx, undoubtedly the most straight forward punk rock band that evening. If Refused ushered in the shape of punk to come, then the Bronx is a hearty tip of the hat to where it has been. With half the stage being taken up by the gear of the headlining acts, the Bronx played the 2,200+ theater like a tiny club, including vocalist Matt Caughthran spending several songs amongst the audience. The Bronx took full advantage of its brief set time, pausing only briefly between songs to thank the other bands and at one point to memorialize Dick Clark. Pumping through a fairly even selection of its three LPs, the band wrapped up with a one-two of "Heart Attack American" and "History's Stranglers."
At this point the evening took its most dramatic, and perhaps jarring, gear shift. The Hives are a band that, at certain points in their career, could be described as garage rock, punk rock and perhaps just rock. They've cranked out snotty punk and paired up with hip-hop mogul Timbaland. The one thing they're not is predictable. The band came out to the mid-tempo "Try It Again" (off The Black and White Album) and were decked out in their finest top hats and tails. The song basically set the tone for the Hives' set; they were incredibly high energy (particularly front man "Howlin'" Pelle Almqvist) but when sandwiched between music like the Bronx and Refused, it seemed to lack the testosterone rage that some of the audience was looking for.
This was fueled, in part, by two things. First is the near complete lack of material from earlier albums (the set included two songs from Veni Vidi Vicious and a complete ignored Barely Legal). While it's great to see the Hives enjoying and performing their new material, the more raw energy of their earlier albums seems like it would have been a slightly better fit with the current showcase. The other aspect is the understanding of the Hives' performance. At a Hives live show you need to understand the Hives are smarter, handsomer, more talented and flat out better than you. You're lucky to be in their presence and if you don't know that, frontman Almqvist is more than happy to remind you. But, complete submission to this routine allows for maximum enjoyment of their show. For one reason or another several audience members were unwilling to participate in these shenanigans, which seemingly culminated when Almqvist asked the entire audience to sit down and even had a playful exchange where he stepped down on a unwilling audience member from the stage . This isn't to say the Hives weren't amazing or that the audience wasn't receptive, but there were clearly a few people who (by choice or ignorance) chose not to participate in the activity and probably led to them having one of the more low key crowd reactions of the evening.
Of course, the phrase, "low key crowd reaction" is all relative considering what followed. After the Hives took their bows, the curtain closed and the entire mood of the Warfield changed. The floor before the stage didn't empty out with people going to the bar, bathroom or merch table. Instead it began to fill more. The energy of 2,200 people waiting to see, what for many of them was 14 years in the making, was palpable. When the house curtain drew back to reveal the large, black Refused logo curtain, the crowd swelled to the front, before so much as a note of music played. The wait seemed immeasurable, but Refused had waited 14 years as well, and another 10 minutes wasn't going to trouble the group. As the curtain dropped to the opening of "Worms Of The Senses/Faculties Of The Skull," the crowd exploded into a frenzy that persisted throughout the entire set.
For its part Refused did everything in its power to give fans their money's worth. This wasn't a reunion where the band would lazily strum through a handful of hits and bid the crowd goodnight; they played every song like a full throttle attempt to win over the already frantic crowd. Leading the charge was Dennis Lyxzén, who danced, twirled the mic stand and indeed flipped like a man half his age (he's almost 40). The similarities between Lyxzén and Hives frontman Almqvist were noticeable (the two bands have a bit of shared history) but where Almqvist seemed to perform with a song, Lyxzén seemed more spastic, as if his moves were less an enhancement to the music and more an involuntary reaction.
The set list was a great combination of what people would expect and hope for. A large portion of tracks from The Shape of Punk to Come, but a good number from Songs to Fan The Flames of Discontent. Still, when the band walked off stage before playing "New Noise," not a single audience member seemed stunned or the least bit surprised, because everyone knew it was coming. It was like going to a Golden Corral and pretending to leave before you throw fried chicken in the chocolate fountain; everyone knows it's coming. However, when the band returned to the stage and the open chords of "New Noise" began, the audience reached a level of intensity that seemed to be building over the entire night. The band then continued with another slow building song, "Tannhäuser Derivè," which exploded with actual columns of smoke blasting from the stage. When it was done, Refused seemed as tired, sweaty and satisfied as the fans who came to see the band.
There is absolutely no way to compare the show at the Warfield to what could have been in 1998. The crowd is different, the venue is larger than anything Refused would have played and the members themselves are different people than they were 14 years ago. No, Refused in 1998 at a club with 100 people may have been a life-altering experience that will go unmatched through the ages. That said, Refused (with the Bronx and the Hives) in 2012 put on a show that had to have a lot of people's inner-teenager smiling.