Bad Brains are a legendary DC punk band that have influenced many great artists including the Beastie Boys. Noah Shussett attended their recent concert at the 9:30 club and recounts the experience. Photographs taken by Allison Basker.
It’s all over. Election night in Washington and the spontaneous street celebrations from the results of the election has come and gone. A historic night in The District got kicked off before the late night dancing in the street, when the 9:30 Club opened its’ doors and cast over 1000 smiling and sweaty faces of riled up punk rockers onto the sidewalks after DC’s show of the decade.
Bad Brains, the dub-reggae-legends of hardcore punk—the most unique, recognizable and influential band of their time—had just played their first show in their hometown since an “unofficial” ban against them amongst music venues was enacted more than 20 years ago. The significance of Bad Brains playing the very same club that is rumored to have made their ban stick in the 80’s was dwarfed by the fact that America was on the cusp of electing it’s first African-American President. Consider that the band are practicing Rastafarians, also African-American. Where else would you want to be on election night besides a dream show on the night of a dream realized?
The line stretched halfway down the block on V Street and the door staff was out in full force patting people down. The energy entering the club was infectious, even the ticket takers were more plucky and forthcoming than normal. The sold out show was near filled and the sense of impending madness could be felt throughout the club. Story continues after the jump.
From the moment Bad Brains stepped on stage, the tense packed crowd began to get very excited. As Dr. Know and Daryl Jennifer picked up their axes and Earl Hudson had a seat at his kit, the corner of your eye more and more frequently caught a soul bouncing up and down. When H.R. greeted the crowd the roar was overwhelming, when he called out the name of the first song—My Attiude—the sound was deafening. When the first strike of a guitar happened the crowd exploded.
Everything and everyone was fair game downstairs, the pit was enormous and swallowed people nearby instantly introducing you to plenty of new friends to send you home with a bruise. Voices screamed out lyrics, fists were in the air, the first crowd-surfer was tossed into the arms of the security staff catching the crazies, the smell of punk—oh that smell–began to emanate.
This was not the Bad Brains of lore and it became very apparent very quickly. The sets of back-to-back reggae songs seemed to serve as a chance for them to catch their breath. Make no mistake, the band was still the monster on stage nailing lightning quick rifts and starting and stopping precisely with furious speed. The belligerence of it was missing and I don’t just mean the dozens of bodies dancing on stage and throwing themselves into the crowd. The music that moves people into such behavior was still present as was apparent to anyone in the balcony watching the main floor.
Now, lead singer H.R. and the rest of Bad Brains are in their fifties, it is quite the age to be playing hardcore punk music. But again the band showed no effect of it, but H.R. stepped on stage and did not move a foot from the microphone until he sat down late in the set to drink some water. The man barely sang the words instead electing to string out the counts with his fingers like an orchestra conductor, unaware he held up two fingers in one hand and only one in the other. The crowd, most aware of this charade from recent years of performances would not be denied though, as the youth and us older-rans indulged as if restless and as if this were the biggest show in recent memory in DC.
The lack of the screaming and tearing across stage that was H.R.’s normal modus operandi—his uninhibited dancing, maniacal vocal range and ridiculous energy that made him the most exciting frontman of hardcore punkrock—was all the more irritating when you noticed he continually pulled out the set-list from his jacket pocket as if he forgot the next song. The drenched shirt or heavier apparel you donned being soaked in sweat was the only solace you received as it confirmed that you were getting what you came for.
Maybe he’s burnt out and unable to sing at the speed or with the wide range he used to. Maybe it’s the side effects of his long-rumored drug addiction. Maybe he likes to tease his fans. Maybe a fan should of rushed the stage and planted him on his ass to remind him what he helped create. Maybe or maybe not, it makes no difference as H.R. came home and laid a stinker on stage.
The sheer energy of the music and the crowd carried the show though: their intense speed coupled with their still to-this-day unparalleled skill and style took over your body and demanded you get in the mix. Bad Brains did a good job of mixing up their reggae with their newer style like ‘Give Thanks And Praise’, with classic cuts such as ‘Regulator’, ‘Right Brigade’, and ‘Sailin On’, their harder more metal songs such as ‘Soul Craft’ and their absolutely have to plays like ‘Banned In DC’ and ‘Pay To Cum’—their closer.
Being on the floor was like being lost at sea and having no care where the nearest land was. With every jump you seemed to get closer to the rafters, every shove was a bit more careless yet love-filled and despite being well on your way to losing your voice, you still screamed at the top of your lungs when you felt so inclined. If you fell down you were picked up—often by the person who put you there—quickly so no other damage could be done, the way it was years ago, the way it should be.
The smiles stretched all the way down U Street, the slamming into other people was like a hug, climbing over them to get up mirrored elementary school piggyback rides, the madness meant you were a part of something. The crush of people moved as if forced by waves towards the stage and into the pit. A part of history. DC’s boys were back, and even if H.R. was acting as if he had taken a dozen downers, the smell returned and brought the crazy with it. A part of DC history.
The heartily hoot-and-hollered chant of ‘DC Hardcore!” followed ‘Pay To Cum’ in an attempt to arouse an encore that never came, and boo’s accompanied thoughts of rushing the stage when the lights came on. Instead, arms were slung around shoulders and songs were still sung out, new friends were made, it felt like one big family, one last time and the first time in a long time in this District.
This was the ‘icing on the cake’ one might say considering the party that awaited once you stepped outside the club, only it came before the cake had officially been counted as baked. History was made on stage last night as four black men from a place where they traditionally say no to black men, tried to take advantage of someone finally saying yes to them again (on a night when the majority of the country said yes to another famous black man to top it off). Luckily enough, there were over 1000 people there to help make sure it was capitalized on, for we had been waiting and saying yes for over 20 years.