A lot of people think that punk is supposed to be about change for the better. Also, in some people's point of view, it's about having heroes, but not idols. So, when the often unpredictable Bad Brains played the first of their sold out, two-night stint at Slim's in San Francisco on September 23, 2007, both of these values were put to the test.
It's pretty crystal that the Bad Brains have changed. Where they used to be punkers that played rasta-influenced reggae, they now seem to be rastas that dip into punk. As was evident by the show, this change of poles has modified the Bad Brains' music, but not necessarily made it diluted. Where H.R. used to leap around the stage like a court jester gone mad, he now stands in one spot ceaselessly grinning. His unique yippty-yap-yappity-yip vocals only come out for rare, brief cameos while his natural thicker voice soars over the music instead of zapping through it like the former. Sure, this is different, but it's still pretty damn good.
For instance, the show drew its material heavily from the ROIR album, I Against I, and their newest LP, Build a Nation. Earl Hudson, Darryl Jennifer, and Dr. Know rocked through the songs with the punk-meets-metal intensity found on I Against I, with special notice going to H.R.'s brother who seems to have kicked the energy up a notch in response to his sibling. H.R., who has a surprisingly bold voice, floated above the fast songs almost like a declaration. While the band used to be the epitome of energy, with H.R. ricocheting off the walls while the band played with unmatchable speed, they now play with an almost omniscience with every note hitting at an exact time and not a single strum of the guitar wasted. Interestingly, now that H.R. does sing with his elder-statesman voice, he seems to have dropped his habit of missing cues and singing off the mic. Sure, it would have been nice if the diminutive rasta got down and dirty like in the old days, but it appears that the Bad Brains have accepted that this isn't the old days anymore and by remaining cool like a cucumber on the mic, H.R. seems to be saying maybe it's time for the audience to realize that, too.
Although their punk may have morphed into a new creature, the Bad Brains' reggae has remained damn unique and matured into presumably what the band intended all along. When they played at Slim's, the reggae tunes started like their studio counterparts and then bled into extended dub versions. While many of the straight-up punkers seemed to get lost in the reverb and trippy vocal effects, the reggae enthusiasts among the group rode the smooth grooves for as long they could. When they used to play reggae, the band sounded like a punk band playing reggae, and now when they play reggae, they sound like a reggae band playing reggae.
Yes, the Bad Brains have changed. But, while some people complain that they are for novelty purposes only anymore, there are new things to the group's sound that would be a shame to dismiss. The 2007 Bad Brains punk song is now a bold declaration, where it used to be an electrified shout. The reggae has now assumed the trappings of both roots sound and the dancehall, and sounds better than ever. So, have the Bad Brains changed for the better? ...Maybe. But, even if they haven't, the new sound is still a step in an interesting direction.