Staff editor/writer/podcaster/mascot John Gentile and I went to see the Greg Ginn-led Black Flag reunion at Philadelphia's Union Transfer Mon., June 17. What follows is our civil discussion about how tru punx it may or may not have been.
John Gentile: First off, there were two things that really impressed me about Ginn's Black Flag. Ron Reyes sounded absolutely fantastic. The common criticism of his contribution to Black Flag studio recordings is that he is the vocalist with "the least character." I'm not interested in entering that debate, but I will say, live, he added both a new layer and hook to his performance.
Reyes' voice is as strong as ever, but now, it seems larger and more powerful than before. Where he used to have the classic punk shout, his voice has become deeper and thicker, but is still agile, meaning that he howls more than shouts. It gives the songs a less youthful, more timeless expression. Interestingly, because his vocals have become a bit deeper, at times, he almost sounds like Slayer's Tom Araya, which gives the music a neat spin. Likewise, his actual expression of the songs maintains the same unexpectedness and smash form the original recordings, and he really does sound like he's about to fly off the handle at any moment.
What also really impressed me was Ginn himself. Though he seemed a little bit more energetic and interested in playing during the Good for You set, Ginn is a sight to behold. While playing, his hands don't seem to strum so much as melt across the fretboard. It's obvious that this is a guy that still plays the guitar for hours and hours each day. He's playing music at its most fundamental level and really does seem to enter a trance when playing these songs. The mere fact that he seems so connected to the sound makes me that much more interested in the music.
Joe Pelone: While I agree that Reyes' voice has gotten better with age, he still felt somewhat out of place. On record, the early Black Flag material is of the short 'n' sweet variety, but live, Ginn sought to jam out and slow down songs, approaching something less brutal but way heavier. The tradeoff left Reyes superfluous, and he occasionally had to resort to old frontman clichés, like shouting "That's what I'm talkin' about!" during Ginn's umpteenth solo, or awkwardly trying to work song titles into stage banter, like when he kept asking variations of the question "Have you ever been...down in the dirt?" during new tune "Down in the Dirt."
Which I reckon segues into my bigger issue with the set: Ginn's Black Flag reunion is a front to bring his new band, Good For You, to bigger venues. Three-quarters of the touring Black Flag lineup play in Good For You. This version of Black Flag was clearly geared towards playing old tunes in GFY's style. While I give Ginn props for not just rehashing previous successes, his slower takes on early material were wanting (Basically, if it appears on The First Four Years, it wasn't good here).
The paradox of Black Flag is that you need Ginn to make it a real reunion, but next to nobody wants to see him play in Black Flag anymore (Granted, this show sold out, so maybe my math is off). Word is that rival reunion FLAG is fast as fuck; Ginn's Black Flag went the opposite route. Union Transfer bore witness to plenty of slow 'n' heavy jams. It actually worked for latter-era tunes like "Can't Decide" and new track "Down in the Dirt." But anything from the pre-My War years sucked balls. Past and future Black Flag frontman Ron Reyes has a scream that's held up nicely over the years, but he couldn't salvage the half-baked, half-time versions of "Nervous Breakdown" and "Fix Me." The audience went off for anything on Damaged, but those tunes were way too slow. And sloppy. If Ginn is going to take on Keith Morris, he needs to practice with other people more.
That being said, you're right, John. Homeboy's guitar snarls like no other, and while the set wasn't perfect, it did occasionally steer towards transcendence. Perhaps Black Flag's hardcore roots served as a ground for Ginn's more meandering instincts, because other than that, they just felt like a second set from Good For You. Speaking of which, what did you think of them?
John: Well, the word about Good for You (which is just Black Flag 2013 minus Reyes, plus Mike V) has been that they are terrible, based off of their singles. However, when they came out, they seemed more savage, heavier and, frankly, more vibrant than their studio counterparts. As with so many '84-'96 SST records, it seems that the studio recordings of Good for You are just undercooked.
Live, they opened with a very Slip It In-style song, and I really, really enjoyed it. Ginn was clearly having a ball, and Mike V's mid-period Rollinsish growl worked really well. I also really liked the jam session they got into. It seemed to be classic rock taken to its most savage extreme, which I thought was cool. I even liked the Jim Morrison-style rant Mike V did during the first half of the set. The whole band seemed loose and ferocious. Mike V could probably improve his stage presence somewhat, but he has a certain charisma.
But then, after Good for You did all their tricks in their first 30 minutes, they basically just brought out all those same tricks again for a second 30-minute block. The songs were different songs, but they sounded like duplicates of the first 30 minutes and I sort of got bored. Always leave them wanting more is a key to punk and unfortunately, Ginn choose to deliver two heaping servings when a few small bites would have really knocked out the audience.
Joe: I pretty much agree with everything you say. Good For You had a sprawling, quasi-psych vibe that might have worked better in small doses. Or maybe just with better restraint. The players all seemed pretty talented, but they got a little too hung up on improvisation, to the point that they fucked up tempo transitions way too much. The drummer also had a weird need to bring in auxiliary percussion, which led to much white guy dancing on stage. As an XpepXbandX guy, I got pissed off at the way he messed up his cymbal hits too.
At the same time, though, I kind of respect where Ginn and co. were going. This is music they want to make. Ginn has fought hard to protect Black Flag's legacy, but I think he's a little more done with it than he realizes. Which just reaffirms my belief that the reunion is a ploy to showcase Good For You (and maybe flip off Morris). But then, which is the better band at this point, Good For You for being completely legitimate but only adequate, or Black Flag for begrudgingly bringing the hits, albeit on their own terms?
John: I agree that I think Black Flag 2013 is just a draw for Good for You. I still think it is cool that Ginn is so into music that he's willing to basically be on stage for almost three hours. But, it seems we agree, that with the jammy metal stuff, enough is enough.
You said that no one wants to see Greg Ginn play in Black Flag anymore, but I disagree; I definitely want to see Ginn play Black Flag songs. You also stated that the First Four Years tunes were played at half speed. I think that is a little severe. I think really, they were just played at studio recording speed or maybe a little slower. However, the positive of that is that those songs were given a sort of stoner metal heaviness which I thought was really cool. These versions weren't necessarily the "best" versions of these songs, but I found them to be incredibly interesting, which to me, is sort of the point of a live show.
It seems to me that we are dancing around the fundamental pivot of this entire conversation, and of the point of Black Flag in 2013. Is Ginn playing these songs in this loose heavy fashion because his playing is sloppy? Is it because he is such a genius that much like the wildest free jazz, playing strange rhythms within standard structure is interesting to him and we are just too dumb to understand what he is doing? Is it that he simply finds these newer versions more amusing or fiercer? Or is it because he used up a lot of energy during the 60-minute opening set?
Joe: I think it's actually all of those reasons. In order: I don't think the band practiced enough. Or maybe they just don't care enough about staying in time together. But talent without diligence doesn't pay off the same way, and I definitely felt like Ginn "colored outside the lines" a bit too much. That said, his guitar playing is insane. The guy was a screeching, droning nightmare, and he doesn't even really use much in terms of effects pedals. It's mostly from his playing style. He probably found GFY more artistically fulfilling, although you could tell he was stoked on the crowd reaction, if only because he set aside a ton of time to interact with people in between sets.1 GFY almost certainly drained him a bit though; the first set saw him headbanging, jumping and dancing. He was still into the BF stuff, but he came off a little more reserved the second time around.
Talking this out with you, though, has left me retroactively enjoying the show more. FLAG sounds more viscerally satisfying and fun, but Ginn's Black Flag is more about experimentation. It was an interesting show for sure, even if it didn't always succeed.
Also, can we give a shoutout to opener True Love? Their harmonies were righteous, even if they had little in common with Black Flag. Then again, SST Records used to have all kinds of random acts, ranging from Minutemen to Meat Puppets.
1 Ginn actually stood right behind us during the first band. Gentile discretely pointed him out to me; I indiscreetly gave Ginn an "oh my heavens" face. Dude backed off us by like 20 feet afterward.