One of the best bands to play at SXSW was a group of forty-year-old dudes
SXSW marks the beginning of the music festival season by celebrating the craft of emerging artists everywhere. They come together in a spectacularly competitive fashion in hopes of taking the world by storm or at least landing 10 seconds of their quirkiest beep-boop track in a Chevy commercial. This happens every year. What does not happen every year is Green Day performing. But it did this year, and I saw them. It was rad.
I couldn’t tell you with a whole lot of precision how many times I’ve seen Green Day over the past 19 years. I’ve seen them in arenas, ballrooms, clubs, at studios in front of 15 people, and even at Giant’s Stadium where they mesmerized a crowd of 70,000 closing out their “American Idiot” tour. In fact, I hadn’t seen them since that show, 7 years ago.
To get to the point: I’m real old. When I was walking to Austin City Limits to catch Green Day, I solemnly reflected on the fact this was my tenth year attending SXSW, and since at least 2009 I’ve been saying, “I’m not doing this shit again.” How on god’s green earth is someone supposed to start drinking Lone Star at 12 o’clock in the afternoon? It’s beyond swill—way worse than Natty Light and Rheingold combined, but a ubiquitous force in classy Austin nonetheless.
I’ve seen my fair share of great shows at SXSW, but when I let people know I was seeing Green Day I was met with “Fuck you, really?” or “Can I hop a fence to get in?” mostly because people knew how good it would be.
So how good were Green Day? The songs they play before they play were better than most bands’ sets. (Before hitting the stage, they managed to have 1200 people singing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, by the way, would have blown the roof off Stan Makita’s Donuts.) And when Green Day take the stage, and I don’t mean to get all heschery and woo-woo about this, a truly joyful moment occurs in the universe. Everyone has the same exact look on their face: “Holy shit, I love these fucking dudes.”
The band launched into “99 Revolutions,” a song off “Tre” that Bille Joe recently noted was one of the best songs he’s ever written. Their sets are no longer the blitzkrieg of the 90s where the band pummels through track after track after track. Instead they’ve perfected the mode of performance they adopted during “American Idiot,” where nearly every song is extended, usually after the second verse or chorus, so the crowd can join in on Billie Joe’s “I say hey-ohs” and whatever else he can get people to do, which is just about anything.
Now, the guy sitting next to me was 43 years old and having the best time of his life.* One might say he was so fucking happy he could cry. For those of us on the older end of the spectrum, something magical happens when Billie Joe swaps out his now-signature beige Les Paul Jr. for his old-signature baby-blue Strat. The one with the red “BJ” drawn between the pickups. And it’s magical because we know what’s coming—something that will bring us back to our bedrooms after Kurt died and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden started boring us to tears; something that introduced us to punk rock and its perspective-changing momentum; something that made us pick up guitars, start bands, tour, fail out of college and whatever else came along with the rock and roll dreams “Dookie” electrified us with. Anyway Billie Joe said, “This next song’s called ‘Burnout,’ and me and dude-next-to-me promptly freaked out.
The band rolled them out, mainstays like “Welcome to Paradise” and “Longview” alongside “Christie Road,” a song that was recorded longer ago than half the audience’s first birthdays. And I marveled at this. These guys are in their forties and a lot of artists in their forties just can’t turn adolescents on with their new stuff. I love R.E.M. and Tom Petty, but when those guys hit that age, they were playing to their base. Perhaps this is Green Day’s single greatest accomplishment: The kids just keep on coming out.
Two hours into the gig, the band hasn’t lost pace but they close out with “Jesus of Suburbia” and a few others, though my memory of the last 15 minutes isn’t real clear for a variety of reasons. We all pile out of Austin City Limits en masse, huge smiles on our faces, and promptly go off to see other, lesser bands.
I’m not trying to launch into a shit-talking diatribe against the gauzy thoughtfulness of indie bands and their hallowed place in the rich history of music, but I will say, and I think I can speak for a lot of us, I’ve had my fill of pedal board and delusions of grandeur. I met up with my friend who let me know she’d seen Cold War Kids the night before and halfway through their set the singer said, “Yeah…we don’t want to be here, either.” Uh, then go home?
After Green Day, I’m watching this band who are, shall we say, heralded by tastemakers. They’ll remain nameless, but I will say their band name employs two of the sames consonants next to each other for no reason save for its profound nod to artistry (our minds are blown!). I double-checked: They had monitors. But it was like they literally couldn’t play. I know a lot of people think this shit is cool, but it’s definitely not cool. It’s more like a representation of what cool actually is.
You know what’s cool? Besides a billion dollars? Green Day, who write great songs and can play the shit out their instruments. I hope they do it till they’re sixty.
* Sort of. There’s a Dave Chappelle skit about how he doesn’t like getting fucked up with white dudes because all white dudes do when they’re fucked up is talk about the last time they were fucked up. This is rather true. Anyway, this guy saw Green Day at Red 7 (a teeny club in Austin) about 8 months back and, given his description of events, that was probably the best time of his life.
Photo credit Felisha Tolentino