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Thursday April 27th, 2023 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Black Flag

The world before the Internet was small. In 1985 it felt exceptionally small for a teenage kid in Indiana who was too young to drive. That spring I'd seen an anarchy symbol spraypainted in the park, and it started an itch I had no idea how to scratch. Back then, none of my friends had discovered Maximum Rocknroll and none of us had cool older siblings to guide us, so the sum of our knowledge of punk rock came from cassettes by only a dozen bands: Sex Pistols, Ramones, The Dead Milkmen, Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Descendents, Circle Jerks, Angry Samoans, Corrosion of Conformity, Crass, Subhumans and, of course, Black Flag. To anyone who grew up with the unlimited sonic opportunities of the Internet, this sounds quaint and limiting, but there is fandom in that simplicity. When you only have a handful of cassettes, every song becomes canon and each of them is attached to a memory. That was the case with Black Flag's The First Four Years. It didn't leave my tape player for a summer and that was the Black Flag that imprinted on me.

Thanks to Karma Records at the mall, I'd hear the band's other albums in the years that followed. I had no use for any of them. Each only seemed more intense and less fun than the one before it. I was particularly annoyed by 1984's My War with its long songs, somehow longer guitar solos, and plodding pace. I didn't like it then, and I don't care how influential it is considered now, as my opinions are permanently colored by an adolescent sense of loyalty formed when I was a kid on a skateboard with plastic rails. So, let me confess that when I walked into the Record Bar to see Greg Ginn’s current version of Black Flag recreate My War, it wasn’t with an open mind.

Normally at this point in a story, the narrator learns something. And I did. I learned that I still don't care for later incarnations of Black Flag. There, you can't accuse me of buying the lede.

The band's first set featured My War played in the order found on the album that I never owned. The A side is the "punk" side. Songs are relatively quick paced, but still twice as long as their early material. The band tackled the songs dutifully, even when confronted with curious time signatures and out of place solos. Some critics peg the start of grunge to these songs. Some even claim it to be the birth of math rock. When the record flips, songs bloat to over six minutes long. There's certainly Sabbath-esque sludge, which has inspired still bolder critics to cite this as the birth of the doom genre. Simple basslines (ones originally written and performed by Ginn) don't ask much of bassist Harley Duggan, but drummer Charles Wiley's talents are put on display during these behemoths. A shaven-headed Mike Vallely handles the screamed and anguish-filled vocals well. Watching him doubled over, shouting out his demons, one can't help but admit that he's a very suitable stand-in for Henry Rollins. But these songs also have long instrumental passages that left Vallely to simply stand facing the drummer for minutes at a time. Was he sent there to think about what he had done? Through it all, Ginn played his off-kilter leads and solos – not robotically, but with plenty of stoicism. Excepting a private altercation between Vallely and an audience member that may have been about intrusive cell phone recording, no one spoke to the audience until the end of the album and thus the first set: Vallely explained there would be a twenty-minute intermission before the band would return for a second set.

As the audience waited, I took stock of the crowd. Lots of dude in their fifties. A lot of them with their kids. It made for a curious crowd. It was packed though, even up in the generally-closed mezzanine. I was told earlier in the day to expect a sellout and I suspect the band got it.

After a half hour, the foursome returned to the stage for another sixteen songs. Tracks from debut album Damaged were well-represented, with a smattering of attention provided elsewhere including cuts as recent as "I Can See You" from the post-breakup EP of the same name. Nothing from the band's best-forgotten 2013 comeback album made the cut. But regardless of origin, each track was delivered with the same crushing catharsis as the tracks from My War. Even the early cuts from the band's initial run of EPs (the ones represented on my cassette) were recast as Rollins-era jackhammers – heavy, expulsive, lumbering, and imposing. Songs were done well, but not "right." No one in the raucous pit topped by constant crowd surfers was available for comment. Thankfully the band's retelling of "Six Pack" retained its nimble feet, earning a sea of punching fists for its chorus. Similarly agile "TV Party" was a mixed bag, as the music still surged, but the once-goofy lyrics were updated by Vallely to rail against iPhone screens rather than profess the band's satirical love of Dallas and That's Incredible. In the middle of this second set the band inflicted a sixteen-minute version of "Slip It In" on the audience. I felt the weight of that one, but the band earned redemption with a punchy version of "Rise Above" that had everyone shouting the rallying chorus. But then came the finale.

Black Flag's 1981 version of "Louie Louie" is sacrosanct to me. Quite a contradiction as the joy of that cover is how rudely it treats the original. Dez Cadena sung that version, offering his own lyrics, including some of my favorite couplets ever: "You know the pain that's in my heart / It just shows I'm not very smart / Who needs love when you've got a gun? / Who needs love to have any fun?" That version is 1:19 long. The version provided by this Black Flag not only substituted new Vallely-penned lyrics, but stretched on for eight minutes. I packed my bag after four and headed for the back of the club.

As I walked home, I tried to think objectively about the concert. It was loud and aggressive and intense and, at times, liberating. Some fans lost themselves in the chaos, coming out of the venue bruised and elated. I was bored as so many songs carried the same heft and too many stretched on indefinitely to allow Ginn to masturbate in front of a paying audience. I've a guitarist friend who loved it – Ginn was one of her idols – so maybe I just didn't get it. Then, of course, we come back to my nostalgia bias. Maybe it's just that the songs don't sound like my teenage skate sessions in parking lots or the games of horse I played in the park.