It didn't have to be this way, man. It didn't have to be this way. You'd be hard pressed find a band as mired in controversy, preconceived notions, and squabbling as Black Flag 2014. The saddest part is that all of it could have been avoided so easily. If Greg Ginn doesn't want to be in "Black Flag," he could have gone on the road as The Greg Ginn band, and, oh yeah, we're playing some Black Flag tunes. People would have loved it. If he did want to be Black Flag, he could have given Ron Reyes a fair shot and said, "Oh Flag– We're not doing what they are doing. Come check us out." People would have loved it.
Instead he attacked some of the greatest (and most beloved) punk artists ever, went on stage under rehearsed, and only served to make himself look petty. So, by this point, it's impossible to separate Black Flag 2014 from the past year of combat that it has endured.
Still, despite the fact that Black Flag 2014 features only Ginn from the original band, and almost comically features none of the other three members from 2013's What theā?¦ and 2013's Black Flag tour, it is within the realm of possibility that the latest incarnation of Black Flag could be good. In a interview with Rolling Stone, the band did state that they wanted to address the criticisms of the previous tour.
So, with a brand new rhythm section and former BF roadie and pro–skateboarder Mike V on vocals, the band hit Philadelphia's Union Transfer on June 24, 2014 to prove their mettle. And to their credit, the new formation with Tyler Smith on bass and Brandon Pertzborn on drums was a tighter union. The 2013 tour was plagued by sloppy time keeping and under rehearsed songs, though the severity of those two infractions was probably over stated. Still, Pertzborn was a faster, sharper drummer Gregory Moore (who had been with Ginn for over 10 years) and Smith did an admirable job of supplying Black Flag's famous thundering bass (though, he's no Dukowski, that's for sure.)
Ginn has been accused of not really wanting to play Black Flag songs, but that wasn't apparent at the Philadelphia show. To the contrary, he was as energized as I've ever seen him, snapping out those famously sharp, twisting riffs and achieving that menacing, high–pitched tone that somehow only he can conjure. The harder songs like "Gimme Gimme Gimme" also had more inherent violence, with Ginn really pulling out the sudden screeches and jumpstarts which makes Black Flag songs so unique and so complex.
And then there's Mike V. Generally, it's probably poor sport in music to say X is better than Y. Art usually can't be judged so quantitatively. Yet, since Black Flag 2013 started, Mike V has been begging for comparison, first, bizarrely attacking FLAG and then after Ron Reyes' dismissal, blaming Reyes for the problems that Black Flag endured in 2013. (Side note– Ron Reyes was by FAR the best part of Black Flag 2013 and seemed to be the only guy that gave a damn.)
So with the amount of shit–talking that Mike V has done over the past six months (admittedly as a shill for Ginn) you'd think that he'd take to the stage with vigor, all guns blazing, aiming to knock Morris, Dukowski, and Reyes off their spot (no easy task!). Heā?¦ did not.
The show opened with a classic Ginn, sinister instrumental that exemplified the best aspects of Ginn's skill– twisting riffs with tactically placed breaks. But, while the band was smashing around on stage, Mike V sort of stood on center stage, unsure of how to busy himself. He decided to face the drum kit and shake his mop top at it. In fact, that sort of exemplifies Mike V's stage presence. He seems to think that a stage presence entails only two things– striking the classic Rollins sprinter pose and shaking his mop top at the drum kit while his back faces the audience. In fact, for 95% of the performance, Mike V confined himself to a 3x3 square on stage, making his delivery feel rather static.
Compare this to Reyes' 2013 performance where he was constantly moving about the stage like a panther, sending all his being into the microphone through a series of howls, screams, and snarls. Since Mike V has so desperately demanded comparison (even long after Reyes was dismissed from the band– poor form), here it is: If Reyes and Mike V were on the stage together, Reyes would blow Mike V off the stage, through the crowd, out the venue, and into the street. And against Keith Morris– Straight massacre– not a single dreadlock out of place.
That being said, Mike V isn't terrible. In fact, it's uncanny at how much he replicates Rollins. If you heard a BF cover band with Mike V, you'd say, "Wow, they are pretty good." But, Mike V's one asset, his ability to ape Rollins to the point were he could fool you on CD, is also his greatest disadvantage. Mike V delivers every line with self–seriousness of Slip it In era Hank, but only 50% of the intensity. Live, there is no variation or individuality whatsoever.
The reason BF has no one definitive singer is because each of them put a drastically different spin on their songs, creating radically different versions of many of the same songs. Morris is the manic jester. Reyes is the pissed off beach boy. Dez is the freight train. Henry is the kid gone berserk. But Mike V just copied everything Henry did on the albums, right down to the improv phrasings on "Six Pack," "Damaged II," and "TV Party." The one time Mike V did go off on his own was on "Revenge" and the whole time he seemed to be off time, struggling to catch up to the beat.
Ginn, too, is a puzzle. He genuinely seems to be playing the older songs with enthusiasm, and really, no one can play songs like "Depression" except him. But, he really comes to life on the set's three new songs, at least one of which, is just a "Good for You" song. ("Fucked Up.) As with all recent Ginn projects, the new songs show promise, but little effort. Ginn starts out with a killer, howling riff, but then, instead of evolving the song, just repeats the riff ad infinitum while Mike V tries to find a spot here or there when he can inject vocals like "Meet you half way– I'd rather die!"ā?¦ over and over and over again. The songs might be new, but they sap the set of intensity.
In fact, that was the show's biggest trouble. The classic songs did build intensity, like on "Rise Above" with its storming chorus. But, there were breaks in between each songs, no less than three band introductions, and at least two periods where Ginn left the stage to retrieve beers to distribute to the band. (Also, Mike V who had been ragging on other bands for catching their breath– which I never saw, truthfully– definitely had to take a few breaks where he tried to hide the fact that he was sucking in air). The band played an extended, nearly 100 minute set, and Ginn daringly tried to put in some new instrumental jams. Had they worked, they would have given the live show a new level and made the classics hit that much harder. But, the instrumentals started out interestingly, only to devolve, draining the show more than coloring it. By the end, it was fun, but it was time for the show to be over.
In contrast to the end of BF's sagging energy at the end of the show, the night opened with Cinema Cinema. A two piece guitar and drums act, the band fit in well with the other bands. Sort of a punk–heavy metal merger, Cinema Cinema blasted out avant–garde, but intense, guitar based songs that would flirt with standard structure all before shattering into an experiment in sound, cacophony, and order. Despite their fairly long set for an opening act, they kept their act invigorating, continually shifting to new sonic territories and never doing the same trick twice. It also helped that both members were highly animated, playing their music as much as acting it out. In fact, I was a bit excited by the band's reception. Certainly, they are far outside the general punk domain sonically, but not philosophically. The crowd, which was by far the youngest crowd I've seen in the past few years and honestly, the majority of people watching the show probably weren't old enough to drive, enthusiastically and warmly received Cinema Cinema's daring set. I am sure that had the band played to an older crowd at a modern "punk" show, they would not have been so positively received. Has punk's recent lack of variety and experimentation been lost with the youngest fans, or were they just not old enough yet to "learn the rules–"
Just before Black Flag, Greg Ginn and the Royal We took the stage, and really, it was the best part of the night. Composed of just Greg Ginn and about five machines including a laptop, Theremin, TV, and other gizmos, the band exemplifies the best parts about Ginn. As Ginn pulled out about five extended instrumental pieces, the machines rumbled out electronic music– spacey drums, beeping synths, and goth–ish screeches. Meanwhile, the video screen played vintage video, accompanying or juxtaposing Ginn's trippy music.
The set did make it clear how music just radiates from every pore in Ginn's body. At one point, he was operating a sound machine, playing the Theremin, and his guitar once. With his held tilted back, he seemed to be euphoric as the music flowed from him and into him. People have criticized Ginn's Theremin use but that is ridiculous and small minded. There is certainly no book of rules on what instruments are or are not punk, and the more adventurous a band is the better. The Theremin, which Ginn played with ease, exemplifies all of that.
As the spotlight shined down on Ginn alone on stage (with his machines) a certain question seemed to arise. Ginn almost seems to be a tragic figure. He communicates with machines with such ease, able to convey music with such feeling that people spend lifetimes chasing. Is Ginn so blessed by his gift that it has come at the cost of his ability to interact with humans, or is he a man, that despite being unparalleled, is consumed with so much greed that he must attack anyone else that excels, even at cost to himself– Maybe the fact that his best contemporary work is with machines that have no choice but to agree with him helps answers the question.