I was prepared. I got up early. I sat at my laptop with a cup of hot black coffee and proceeded to click refresh again and again. And again. 9:58...9:59...10:00 a.m. A couple more clicks later, I found myself one of the lucky few with two tickets to Bad Religion's show at the Echo in Los Angeles (Capacity: 400). The last time I had seen the band in a place this small was for their record release party for The Process of Belief at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Jan. 2002. It was also the last time I'd seen Brett perform with the band (He only does so for Southern California dates, and even then not always).
After securing a motel room online a few blocks from the venue, I was ready to travel to L.A. to see one of my all-time favorite bands. I remember clearly the first time I saw them in December, 1994 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. 1993's Recipe for Hate introduced me to Bad Religion, and it was a high school favorite. Since then, I've seen them probably well over a dozen times, from Warped Tour stages to large halls to mid-size venues. But nothing prepared me for this. Myself and my better half and 398 of our closest friends.
Upon arriving at the venue, I spotted bassist Jay Bentley calmly standing out front near the entry line, chatting with a Starbucks coffee in hand and sporting a new grey beard. Some old punk friends of his from Back In The Day huddled around. I was wearing an Into the Unknown t-shirt and Jay immediately spotted it and began making cracks about the album's fabled status as a creative failure. He quipped that they pressed 6,000 copies and 7,000 came back returned, and then proceeded to recount how a flooding in his basement destroyed several boxes of them.
We made our way inside soon after and were shocked at the size of the place. The square footage was similar to the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, with a back smoking patio of picnic tables akin to Thee Parkside (also in SF). All black walls with a disco ball in the ceiling. No barricade, no security, and a stage a mere two or three feet off the floor. Also, as we were delighted to learn, no opening bands. Doors were at 8 and BR was planning to go on about 9. By the time they finished their last song it was 10:30.
After a beer and a smoke we made our way towards the front and secured a spot two people deep from the edge of a stage so small that barely all the band's equipment fit on it. Finally the lights went down and the members of Bad Religion made their way up one by one. Brooks Wackerman barely had room to crawl around to his drum kit. Everyone had assembled but the lead man, to which Jay announced "Dr. Graffin to the stage please." After a bit of banter in Greg G.'s classic, self-effacing way, the band launched directly into "Suffer" and "We're Only Gonna Dieā?¦" A one-two punch from the old school. The crowd went ballistic. Everyone close to the stage was chanting along and pointing at Graffin as he gesticulated his ever-present lyrical interpretations in tandem with his voice.
From there, the setlist evolved as predicted; a Greatest Hits approach with new songs from True North sprinkled throughout. "Wrong Way Kids" was the only tune played off their decidedly mixed last effort, The Dissent of Man. As expected, nothing off the Atlantic albums, save "Punk Rock Song." Off True North we were given the title track, along with "Vanity," "The Past is Dead," the lead single "Fuck You" (which probably got the largest and most enthusiastic crowd response), "Robin Hood in Reverse" and "The Land of Endless Greed." My favorite of this crop, however, was "Nothing to Dismay" which Graffin introduced as a "sing along," inviting the crowd to contribute the "nos." The vocals were spot on with how it sounds on the recording, the chant of the title chorus phrase direct and in-your-face.
The band seemed at ease and having fun with such a small venue. Several times crowd surfers made their way onto the stage and then dove back off, something that you rarely see at a BR show with security barricades. Hetson seemed crowded over on stage right and had to play behind a large post most of the time. No one appeared to be just going through the motions, except for Mr. Brett who just seemed, well, tired. He's the band's oldest member (at 52) and it really shows. He played no lead guitar parts at all, not even his solo for "Sorrow" (which he DID play to great effect at aforementioned Whiskey show in 2002). Brett hardly moved at all, and his performance came across as pedestrian. A few times I requested that he play the new track "Dharma and the Bomb" (the first BR song to feature him on lead vocals) but Mr. B. just wasn't having it, although he promised they'd play it at their show at the Hollywood Palladium in March.
This show should have easily been a 10 but I give it two points off for one reason only–the disappointing setlist which left nothing to chance and featured no surprises or rarely-played fan favorites. I was looking forward to, I don't know–"Marked?" "All Good Soldiers?" "Entropy?" Something. It was a tiresome retread of the most obvious choices–with the exception of one pivotal moment. A guy close to the front on stage left (in front of Brian Baker and Jay) kept shouting "Anesthesia!!!!" over and over and over again between EVERY song break. It got to be a bit much. But you know what? The band took it to heart. Eventually about half way through, Jay responded and the band conferred about whether everyone was up to speed on the song's parts. Brett expressed skepticism. Hetson and Baker seemed game. Dr. Graffin was amused but also weary, and he opened with an apology for "butchering this next one." However Wackerman really made it something special by hewing closely to Pete Finstone's original drum outro on Against the Grain.
The band wrapped up with no encore, closing out with the heavy hitters: "Sorrow," "American Jesus," "21st Century Digital Boy" (for which Hetson stepped up to play his original solo, not the Stranger Than Fiction version that Brian Baker usually plays on tour) and "Punk Rock Song." And like that–they were gone.
All in all, despite my gripes about the setlist, this show–given its intimacy–will remain in my top ten list for years to come. It was a truly special evening with one of Southern California punk rock's most enduring and inspirational icons.