Concert Reviews

Greg Ginn finally seems happy, and that's a good thing for Black Flag fans

There was no gobbing, no fighting, no obvious fascist skinheads ruining last night's Black Flag show for other people. There were also no members of the classic line-up beyond the band's founder, Greg Ginn.

But twenty-eight years after Black Flag last did a national tour, that was to be expected. What was not as expected was that Ginn looked like he was really enjoying himself playing old songs and new. He didn't look as tense and as intense most of the time as in the Flag's heyday, but those unforgettable guitar riffs were part of a sound that was like what former Flag vocalist Henry Rollins described as the perfect soundtrack to a "full scale riot." And no matter how many imitators the man has, no one plays like Ginn. He still makes some of the most insane, propulsive and eruptive guitar work ever perpetrated look easy.

It was Ginn's genius for flying off into unexpected directions and coming back and hitting hard on the riff with finesse that made even the jam sections of the set work. And yes, the kind of blues, boogie rock, improvisational element has always been there in some of the music. Understandable because, when Ginn was growing up, some of the most vital and rebellious music being made was raw, blues-based rock.

At the end, the band performed its version of "Louie Louie," which was a jam at the live shows way back when and on record. Ginn left the stage to the remaining three members, including drummer Brandon Pertzborn, singer Mike Vallely and guitarist Tyler Smith to finish the song and thus the set.

Vallely didn't have the wild, nervous energy of Keith Morris. He didn't possess the dark yet playful menace of Ron Reyes, nor the burning passion of Dez Cadena. He certainly didn't have the focused intensity and tortured and savage delivery of Henry Rollins. What he did possess, however, was a gruff musicality akin to David Johansen. He didn't disappoint -- he was just different, and he could pull off the songs with utter conviction --something all of the Flag's singers have been capable of. He also seemed to know how to joke around with Ginn, who joked around with his band mates, though he also seemed to be giving tips to Smith here and there throughout the show.

What might have been lacking in the show was the force that Black Flag seemed to have in the past. Which is forgivable on a couple of levels. It's much preferable to see the band have fun, because it's a sign of some level of health in the relationship within the band. Ginn is 60. That he's still willing to tour and play music like this speaks to his personal bravery, because this is demanding music. He also still seemed to leap into the wildest parts of his riffs, and he took the time out to shake hands and interact with the audience like a kid saying hello to his friends off stage. He bordered on giddy, of all things, now and again, and seeing a guy whose music is often brimming with sarcasm and lyrics about personal darkness so unabashedly happy was refreshing.

Off stage there was a circle pit of a sort and people went berserk for the classics like "TV Party," "Nervous Breakdown," "Slip It In" and "Revenge." But it was like an old school pit, where people picked each other up and no one was trying to do real harm to anyone else. Rather than the shared catharsis and battling the hostility of so-called fans of old, or FLAG's inspired resurrection of the spirit of that music in its own performances, this Black Flag show felt like a celebration and a hint at what this band might do once this initial foray back as a touring live band has concluded. Certainly Ginn and Valelly said, "Next time!" when requests were made.

Critic's Notebook

Bias: I first heard Black Flag in the 80s when I saw Repo Man. But when I finally got a hold of The First Four Years and Damaged in the early 90s I became a big fan of how it was a weird band that happened to play music that was clearly punk with strains of early metal and jazz in its sound.

Random Detail: A lot of classic album covers t-shirts were available at the show.

By the Way: Pretty broad age range at this show, and that was good to see too.

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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.