21s Century Hoedown: Green Day at the Phone Booth, Reviewed

Green-Day

Do-It-Yourself is forever cited as the governing mantra of punk, and sure enough, it inspired Green Day leader Billie Joe Armstrong to put his own band together 20-plus years ago. But on the evidence of the sturdy Bay Area trio’s combustible circus at the Verizon Center last night, Armstrong’s progression from Buzzcocks-style petulance to Townshendian hero rock had at least one side effect: He’s discovered the benefits of outsourcing.

In a stunt that felt more American Idol than American Idiot, the 37-year-old guyliner-wearing frontman summoned a half-dozen fans to share his stage. There were the two dudes he had up, separately, to sing competing versions of “Longview,” the 1994 megahit that brought punk’s DIY ethos into the bedroom. Later, he pulled up a sweaty young comer in white tube socks to play guitar on “Jesus of Suburbia.” The kid’s awkward appearance made it feel twice as triumphant when he nailed the song.

In between, there was the woman Armstrong deputized to cool off the churning mosh pit with a super soaker while he opened fire on the arena’s upper decks with a T-shirt cannon. What would St. Joe Strummer think?

“This is brilliant,” probably.

Sure, the “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” shtick has been in the Green Day playbook for years, but what of that? It’s a gimmick worth keeping, responsible for some the most exhilarating movements of a 2.5-hour gig that felt Springsteenian in its length and giddy populism, and KISS-like in its frequent detonation of explosive ordnance.

Ably balancing audience rapport with superbly executed arena rock bombast, the concert proved that when it comes to making sure you’ve got showbiz enough for a cavernous arena, while still leaving room for spontaneity and a little chaos, the redoubtable firm of Armstrong, Dirnt & Cool (discreetly backed by three additional players) is as good as anybody. The ensemble was tight enough to whip the show back into line whenever one of Armstrong’s digressions — the story about accidentally peeing in his suitcase en route to play RFK stadium, for example — threatened to derail what was never less than a march, and often a sprint, towards fist-pumping release.

Now deep into the second act opened by its Grammy-winning, mega-selling 2004 concept album American Idiot, Green Day resurfaced this year with the long-percolating 21st Century Breakdown, another rock opera about two kids trying to navigate a nation in decline. Compared to its predecessor, it lightened up on the narrative and tightened up on the tunes. Meanwhile, a full-blown stage-musical version of American Idiot is set to open at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Sept.4.

Rock operas, you may have heard, are back . But while the Decemberists have chosen the riskier route of performing their new story-album front-to-back, Green Day structured their gig more conventionally. They mostly front-loaded the set’s seven new songs into a career-spanning brain stew that found room for Clinton-era standards like “Basket Case,” “She,” and, er, “Brain Stew,” all aging just fine.

For the diehards, there were two from the group’s salad days, “2000 Light Years Away,” and the night’s penultimate number, “Christine Road.” The latter came in the middle of a three-song solo acoustic set that comprised the final encore. Presumably because curfew was looming, it found Armstrong rushing through stripped back takes of “Macy’s Day Parade” and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the song that made a Seinfeld clip-montage feel sentimental.

Armstrong’s need to connect was the evening’s defining impression. “Know Your Enemy” was extended when he went for a long walk in the 100-level seats stage-right, and that was only the second song. A few minutes later, the audience-participation motif he’d use to such thrilling effect later got off to a rocky start when he pulled a girl named Ellie from the crowd who looked to be only nine or ten. After tutoring her in rock star stagecraft, he gazed into her eyes as he crooned the “East Jesus Nowhere” lyrics about, um, genocide and crucifixion. An instant after handing her back to her parent or other adult minder, he bellowed, “Do you want to start a fucking waaaaaaaaaaaaaar?” Awk-ward.

It may have felt like messianic overreach when Armstrong demanded, “Who wants to be saved tonight?” But whenever one of his audience recruits tried to slink behind the monitors, Armstrong gently nudged him back into the spotlight, and ordered each one to make his exit via stage-dive. Now’s that’s admirable leadership But if any of his acolytes still feels moved to hurl a handful of mud at him, Woodstock ’94-stiz, Armstrong will surely take the compliment as it’s intended.

A slightly shorter, slightly different version of this review appears today on Post Rock and on page C2 of tomorrow’s Paper of Record.

Green Day at Verizon Center, Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Setlist

01 21st Century Breakdown
02 Know Your Enemy
03 East Jesus Nowhere
04 Holiday
05 The Static Age
06 Before the Lobotomy
07 Are We the Waiting
08 St. Jimmy
09 Boulevard of Broken Dreams
10 2000 Light Years Away
11 Welcome to Paradise
12 Hitchin’ a Ride
13 Sweet Child O’ Mine / Brain Stew
14 Jaded
15 Longview
16 Basket Case
17 She
18 King for a Day / Shout! / Swanee / Earth Angel / I’ll Be There
19 21 Guns
20 American Eulogy

    ENCORE 1:

21 American Idiot
22 Jesus of Suburbia
23 Minority

    ENCORE 2:

(Billie Joe Armstrong solo acoustic)

24 Macy’s Day Parade
25 Christie Road
26 Good Riddance

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