Every music fan has those songs that instantly changed your life the first time you heard it. One of mine is Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown," the title track off their debut EP with Keith Morris singing, so finally getting to see Keith play Black Flag stuff live had a lot riding on it for me, and their show totally lived up to expectations. I've seen Keith with OFF! a bunch of times and they're always great, but those shows and the energy of their crowds don't compare to FLAG. When their tour hit NYC's Gramercy Theatre on Tuesday night (6/28), the floor opened up wide for a pit, every song was a stone-cold classic, and the songs sounded as tight and fast as you remember them. That's surely because FLAG have a hell of a lot of veteran hardcore talent on one stage. FLAG is one of two recent versions of Black Flag, and it's the one that doesn't seem like a total trainwreck. Keith is joined by his former bandmate Chuck Dukowski on bass, '80s-era guitarist/vocalist Dez Cadena, '80s-era drummer Bill Stevenson (also of Descendents), and Bill's Descendents bandmate Stephen Egerton on guitar.
The setlist had every song off the Nervous Breakdown EP and other songs initially written in the Keith Morris era, like "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie," "Depression," "I Don't Care," "No Values," and more. They didn't keep it just to that era though. They also did Henry Rollins-era classics like "Rise Above" and "My War," which sounded great with Keith singing. They ended their pre-encore set with their "Louie Louie" cover. And Keith sang the Chuck Dukowski-fronted Keith Morris diss track "You Bet We've Got Something Against You!," and afterwards jokingly called out Chuck, asking if the song really was written about him and adding: "It's about Ron Reyes too, isn't it?"
Keith also turned the mic over to Dez for about five songs during the set, and again in the encore (for the sludgy, dissonant set-closer "Damaged I"). Dez is sadly battling cancer, but he really brought a ton of spirit with him. He may have moved around a little less than the other guys when he was on guitar, but for the songs he sang (including "Spray Paint," "Six Pack," and more), he was in total hardcore frontman mode. It was great to see.
Though I don't think FLAG played any song written later than 1984, the night wasn't only about nostalgia. They have two great younger bands on tour with them. The first was The Dirty Nil, who I last caught in March on the Restorations/Creepoid tour, and they were just as solid on Tuesday night. Luke Bentham really has the rock frontman thing down, with all his jumps and kicks and Pete Townshend-style windmills, and the band is super tight. They're just a trio, but with Luke's seamless transitions between rhythm and lead, and David Nardi's bulldozing bass tone, they sound like a much bigger band.
Then it was War On Women, who I'd never seen before and who hooked me right away. They make a hardcore with a message that's very relevant and necessary right now -- rape, abortion rights, street harassment and transphobia were just a few things they tackled during their set. They also have a killer rhythm section, sharp, loud guitars, and a truly unforgettable singer, Shawna Potter. The best hardcore shows are the ones where you can't look away or get bored, even if you try, and Shawna is a big reason War On Women puts on shows like that. She's sarcastic, angry, confrontational, and entertaining all at once, and it shows in both her delivery and her constantly-animated performance. They seemed thrilled to be playing with FLAG and they also shouted out another group of hardcore legends, Government Issue, who War on Women toured with last fall. As you may know, Government Issue's John Stabb sadly passed away in May, and Shawna mentioned on stage how quickly they got to know him on the tour and how dear he became to everyone in the band. They're covering a Government Issue song for an upcoming tribute album, and they treated us to it on Tuesday night. Their set also included a very special guest, Mikey Erg (who just put out a great new album), coming out to sing on a song.
FLAG's tour continues in Philly tonight (6/29) and wraps up in mid-July. After that, Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton will hit the road for a Descendents tour. Descendents' dates include the just-announced Sound on Sound Fest in Texas, which FLAG also play. If you missed it, read our review of Descendents' recent set at NJ's Punk Rock Bowling. (FLAG played the following day of Punk Rock Bowling too.)
Check out some more Instagram pics/videos from the Gramercy show, including one of FLAG's setlist: