When I heard that Black Flag was playing an hour or so from me on June 18, 2014, I got tickets right away. I thought it could be very good or very bad, but I didn't want to miss it either way- Especially if it was a train wreck. The venue was The Avenue in Lansing, MI, a roomy coffee shop converted into a bar. This is a cozy place to see a show with a capacity of about 275. It was pretty obvious that the club was not accustomed to hosting shows this big. The small stage was all the way to the front of the old building. Natural light streamed in during the early band, and you could see people milling around on the sidewalk. There were only two small light stands and a small mixing board on a stool on the main floor. There was a post in front of the stage wrapped in an old mattress with a "no stage diving" sign attached. Overall, the club had a good punk/DIY vibe.
We showed up just in time to catch local band The Plurals. They played a rousing half hour of 90's style alt-rock. Think early Nirvana or a revved up Pixies. They get extra points for having a female drummer who occasionally also sang. Things were off to a good start. About a half hour later, a man stepped on stage with a bass. I think he said his name was Jay (he was not listed on the bill). He seemed to win over the crowd with his 15 minute set of funky/aggressive basswork and singing/yelling/talking. I thought it went on for 10 minutes too long. Another half hour later, Cinema Cinema hit the stage. They are a two piece noise band from Brooklyn. I don't really want to say anything bad about these guys. They played their asses off, but it just didn't do anything for me. The crowd was starting to get restless, things were not progressing well.
At this point I should talk about Greg Ginn. The guy sometimes gets a bad rap, maybe unfairly. He stood in the crowd to watch all the opening bands. He seemed to enjoy it. When people approached him between bands, he was very comfortable shaking hands and signing autographs. He didn't seem to tire of stories that started with, I saw you 27 years ago...... For the 2 minutes I talked to him, I found him both humble and gracious.
The "backstage" area at The Avenue was not actually near the stage. When the time came for Black Flag to go on, they had to walk through the audience. When they were done with their soundcheck, they started right into an anticlimactic jam. Things were not looking promising until they launched into "Rise Above". The energy in the room changed instantly, the bodies started flying. All 200 or so people packed around the small stage. The beginning of the show was mostly devoted to early material. They went from "Six Pack" to "I've Had It" to "Fix Me" to "No Values". "Annihilate This Week" was the first of the longer, later era songs.
Mike Vallely is an intense front man. He did a good job handling Keith Morris' wail as well as Henry Rollins' howl. Tyler Smith plays a mean bass and handles back-up vocals. I couldn't see the drummer, but he sounded excellent. Greg Ginn plays like a man half his age. It was hot in the club, and we watched as his light gray T-shirt turned dark as it soaked with sweat.
"Gimme Gimme Gimme" morphed into another jam, including a long drum solo. Ginn seemed to enjoy sharing the spotlight with the other musicians. They tore through "Depression", "Black Coffee", "Jealous Again", "Nervous Breakdown", "Can't Decide", "Slip It In" and "TV Party'. Unfortunately, there were a couple more extended jams thrown in too. Just when the show seemed to lose all momentum, another classic song would bring the crowd back to life. About an hour into the set, Black Flag invited someone named Wolf onto the stage. He looked like Santa Claus and played Ginn's theremin for another 5+ minute jam. Next up was "Revenge". For the last song, Ginn and Smith traded instruments. Mike V announced that this song would feature the great Dale Nixon on bass. I don't know how many people got the joke, but I thought it was funny. As "Louie Louie" wound down, Ginn gave the bass to Mike V and went down into the audience to watch the band finish the song.
Black Flag played for 75 minutes, a long set by punk rock standards. Unfortunately, less than an hour of that was devoted to playing actual Black Flag songs. I would have preferred less jamming and more classic songs. The bottom line is that Greg Ginn is one of the original architects of the hardcore sound, and he can do whatever the hell he wants. Although the show was largely about nostalgia, there was still a vitality to it. The show didn't blow my mind, but it didn't make me sad either. Ginn still seems to have a passion for what he does and I'm glad I was there to see it.