Sometimes, to amuse yourself on the drive to work, you call into radio stations to win concert tickets. Sometimes you’re caller number five and you actually win the tickets. And so I found myself, maxed out on teenage nostalgia, at the BMO Harris Pavilion on a Wednesday night. High-priced concerts of starter-pack punk aren’t exactly my bread and butter, but a free chance to check Rancid off my bucket list? Why not?
Most ads for the show listed three bands: Dropkick Murphys, Rancid, and Bouncing Souls. Opener Jake Burns, of punk legends Stiff Little Fingers, kind of got left out in the cold. Sure, he doesn’t have the name recognition of the other bands, but the guy is responsible for Inflammable Material, one of the most solid albums of the original punk era.
We parked for free a block away from the Summerfest grounds. Paying to park seems a little un-punk, doesn’t it? As soon as we exited the car, I heard an acoustic version of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Nobody’s Hero” echoing between the buildings. It was 6:45 p.m. and the show was slated as starting at 7. Jake Burns gets screwed again! We strolled to our supposed-to-be expensive seats and took in a handful of solo acoustic renditions of Stiff Little Fingers classics. For someone that’s been singing these songs for 40 years, he can still belt them out.
Since the crew didn’t have any equipment to haul off the stage after Burns’ set, Bouncing Souls were up there within five minutes. They did the smart thing and opened with “Manthem,” which most people will recognize as “that song from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.” I can’t say that I’ve followed the band much over the past couple decades, though it doesn’t seem like much has changed. They’re still playing goof punk anthems, but now with more tempo changes, more melody, and an occasional song where the guitarist breaks out a capo. They look good for being at it nearly 30 years!
There was a time when New Rock 102.1 was playing Rancid’s “Roots Radicals” on a regular rotation. During this formative time, I was all ears. My previous favorites, Scratch Acid and Flipper, were quickly deemed not punk enough for my discerning teenage taste. Of course, I grew up and Rancid went downhill and we parted ways. So where are we at in 2017?
Rancid’s set opened with the Let’s Go-era rocker “Radio,” an unexpected but welcome choice. It set the tone for the whole set, and the band proceeded to blast through a handful of early classics and deep cuts. For a former fan such as myself, it was exactly what was needed to reel me in. Even still, I knew there were potential stumbling blocks looming. Rancid’s latest album, Trouble Maker, was released in June. There’s no way the band would blaze through a set of old songs and neglect the current record. And when the time came, the new songs worked well, intermingled with the old. Sure, Rancid has developed a definite pop edge, but it gives the group a Cock Sparrer-like sense of melody. The band never played more than a couple new songs at a time without diving back into the classics. Clearly, Rancid understands its audience.
After 25-plus years together, Rancid still has the fire to light up the stage. Matt Freeman may stand stationary throughout the set, but he’s still ripping the bass as hard as he ever has. Tim Armstrong holds his guitar more than he plays it and spends a lot of time holding his fedora to his chest while singing, but he’s still a pinball ricocheting around the stage. Lars Frederiksen appears to be the piece holding it all together and moving it forward. In 2017, Rancid should not be this good live. It just seems implausible, but I saw it with my own eyes. Rancid was stunning.
There was a time when the Dropkick Murphys were a legitimately good Oi! punk band. Once they changed singers and ventured into traditional Irish music, though, they entered another world. Embracing their city’s heritage, the band built a successful career with punk-tinged Irish tunes. They moved well beyond punk circles into the mainstream. Knowing all this going into their set, The Murphys were dead in the water before they even hit the stage. There was no following Rancid. Unless you’re a diehard Murphys fan, there was no way you wouldn’t have been let down after the barnburner of a set that Rancid tore through.