Black Flag - Live in McHenry (Cover Artwork)

Black Flag

Live in McHenry (2024)

live show

What can be said about Black Flag that hasn’t been said? This punk rock institution has been one of the most polarizing bands amongst punks for decades. This has been due primarily to the revolving cast of band members as well as stylistic changes. Black Flag were definitely one of the first punk/hardcore bands I heard, back around 1988. I was too young to ever see the original incarnation of the band, but they did frequent Chicago often, primarily at the legendary Cabaret Metro. Many years ago, I did catch the Keith Morris Flag! which was extremely energetic and entertaining. Finally though, in late 2022 I saw the band marketed as Black Flag, consisting of founding member Greg Ginn. Part of me had always been skeptical, given the absence of any previous vocalist of the band. As I get older, I realize how fragile time is and there are less reasons to NOT see a band. I will say, that first go round was not exactly a stellar performance. It was filled with many jazz interludes which turned even the most basic hardcore song into 10 minute jam sessions. Last year though, I noticed they were going out to perform two sets. The first set was the classic My War performed in its entirety, followed by a “greatest hits” set. My curiosity was peaked and last night I finally had the chance to check this tour out.

The title track “My War” opened the set. The band seemed not exactly warmed up quite yet and took about half the song to kick into full gear. Once they did though, it was all systems go. One might debate choosing this album for a full play through as it isn’t as chock-full of hits compared to other albums. The title track as well as its successor “Can’t Decide” were personal highlights for me. Vocalist and former pro skater Mike Vallely really got into full gear when the groovy “I Love You” rolled into the set. Both “The Swinging Man” and “Nothing Left Inside” went over well with the crowd. This set definitely gave Greg Ginn the artistic freedom to do many improvisations on guitar which would be expected for those who have previously seen the band. This has been a criticism of the punk rock elite for many years since the departure of Rollins decades prior. Then again, to me, Black Flag was never your “typical” punk rock or hardcore band.

After a 20 minute intermission, the band returned to the stage to perform the advertised “greatest hits” set. This set contained all the hardcore fury that fans want to and expect to see from a Black Flag set. Before I get into the details, there is something which I has irked me about the band’s naysayers. Most are in the camp of “No Rollins - No Black Flag” What I find odd though, is that most “Black Flag” fans prefer the pre-Rollins era of the band. As most know, the band’s sound went in a more chaotic and sludge direction in that era. What commenced was an almost hour long set focusing primarily on the pre-Rollins era. This set was truly hit after hit. Early EP classic such as “Fix Me” and “Wasted” had the crowd in a frenzy. Current drummer Charles Wiley played like a man possessed throughout the set. The classic Jealous Again EP was certainly not ignored. Both “No Values” and the title track were performed with sheer intensity. Slip It In has always been one of my favorite full lengths from the Rollins era. I was elated to hear both the title track as well as “Black Coffee” performed. During “Slip It In” was the time in this set when Ginn went into a lengthy guitar jam which lowered the set’s intensity for a few minutes. That intensity was brought up again on tracks such as “Rise Above” and “Depression” which followed. The lyrics for “TV Party” were revised to more contemporary subject matters, such as having your Wi-Fi go out. The band finished the set with a lengthy version of their rendition of “Louie Louie” The band took much liberty both lyrically and musically turning this short song into a 10 minute jam. This truly showcased just how chaotic Black Flag has been through their career.

I routinely see folks online questioning whether to see Black Flag live. I would say if you have never seen them, go! All of our favorite bands are certainly not getting any younger. This was an extremely entertaining show which contained most of what you would want to hear from the band. I know there are many who won’t accept what they consider “lesser” versions of the band. That is to be expected, and I don’t expect this review to change anyone’s mind. What I hope though is that it highlighted what Black Flag brings to the stage for their fans.