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Music

Green Day Still Rocks. Do You?

An amped up crowd breathed (too?) freely at the Hella Mega tour’s Target Field stop.

Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day singing.
Former Replacements guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong.
Lucy Hawthorne

There are limits to how much of a secondhand buzz you can catch from other people’s nostalgia, but in the right setting it can be a crazy high. 

Anchored by three bands—Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Weezer—that persist to be perennially discovered in 7th grade, the Hella Mega tour, which rolled into Target Field last night (a year later than planned), was that kind of environment. For an observer born (not-so-hypothetically) in 1970 (the same year, incidentally, as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, a mere two before the pop-punk elders in Green Day, though both bands broke through primarily to slightly younger audiences in the mid-90s) it was an opportunity to experience my adult past through the childhood memories of others.

The mood was infectious—and let’s hope only the mood was. The merch-craving fans shoehorned into the sold-out baseball stadium were largely unmasked, wholly undistanced, and absolutely unbothered. Which is exactly as it should be at a big summer rock show, but likely not how it should be in 2021. With no vaccination requirement in place and $13 beers loosening folks’ personal-space boundaries, it seemed prudent to hang back on the observation deck rather than scooching in to my assigned seat. When Billie Joe Armstrong celebrated our questionable return to normalcy early in Green Day’s set with, “Now we have each other. We can hug each other. We can kiss each other,” I took a step back. I like my punk bands fast and careless, not my approaches to public health crises.

Though Green Day is a legacy act, performing only two songs of recent vintage, they’re not purely a nostalgia act. No one (I hope) wistfully recalls the days of being too bored to masturbate as a teen or getting mad at George W. Bush, though both experiences are important to remember occasionally. Instead, when Armstrong sang “This is the dawning of the rest of our lives” on “Holiday,” you could imagine he meant it, imagine you believed it, and feel in your bones what it had been like when you had so much restless, pointless energy you needed to constantly find ways to expend it rather than carefully budget it. 

If you’re a Weezer fan, on the other hand… sorry but your youth was a lie. Sometimes I feel like I loathe Rivers Cuomo so much I project more cynicism onto his actions than he deserves. Then he comes out in a mullet, playing a Flying-V guitar, in nearly knee-high striped tube socks and yellow headband, looking like a retro jock and a retro geek trapped in the same body. (And I hope he kicked his own ass backstage afterwards.) By the end of the set he was wearing a Twins jersey and cap because of course he was. A large fella in front of me exploded in delighted disbelief when they began playing Toto’s “Africa,” and I’m happy for him, I guess. But mostly “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” made me nostalgic for a time when the band felt like benign guitar-pop trend-hoppers who’d be safely tucked away on a “Remember the ’90s” playlist by now.

Next on the bill, Fall Out Boy represented the last moment that a new wave of rock felt like it had the potential to revitalize mainstream music, and you could still hear that rush as Patrick Stump’s cleanly slicing hard rock tenor delivered “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” and “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race.” But when they re-emerged last decade after a hiatus to a world of Imagine Dragonses, FOB adapted with the winking pileup of incompatible hooks that is “Uma Thurman.” His hair up in a man-bun, a hairstyle you only see these days in right-wing cartoons about supposedly triggered college lefties, bassist Pete Wentz disgruntledly shared his manager’s observation that the kids don’t listen to rock bands anymore, which isn’t entirely true. Most kids just don’t listen to rock bands that can fill a baseball stadium. At least not new ones.

At last, like the theatrical auteurs they eventually admitted they are, Green Day heralded their appearance with an overture. The stadium had an opportunity to sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety, and then “Blitzkrieg Bop,” ditto. You don’t have to be a rock critic to hear that as a recipe for what was to follow—a little rock opera, a little punk, styles you were supposed to pretend didn’t mix back before we all admitted that nobody really ever followed those rules anyway.

When you see a legacy band live you learn what they, and their fans, believe that legacy is, and the Green Day at Target Field last night was primarily the band that reclaimed its punk politics and chased after its pomp ambition in the 21st century, feeling greatness thrust upon it by its high-up commercial perch and a dire political moment. The timeless swipe at national stupidity “American Idiot” led into the anti-war stomp “Holiday” and then into the wary fist-pumper “Know Your Enemy,” a three-song blast guaranteed to send the night airborne. 

Now even for punk politics (rarely super-thinky stuff) “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies” is at best a starting point, while learning to “Know Your Enemy” is the easy part. And “American Idiot” itself foreshadowed the current climate where dismissing your opponents as dummies is supposed to feel like a victory even as they pound you into the pavement. But with the “new kind of tension” Armstrong diagnosed in 2003 faded into a background thrum we barely notice anymore as more strident anxieties best us, these all sounded righteous enough. And anyway, you know the old Lester Bangs profile of the Clash where a woman dodges his questions about the band’s sociological importance and hops away after explaining why she loves them: “Because they make me jump up and down?” That’s what makes Green Day songs great too, even when they presume to express something more.

And the band knows it. Mike Dirnt on bass and Tré Cool on drums held down the groove (though for all their allegiance to the 1-2-3-4 pogo-beat, they can also swing, which is part of how a punk band makes it to Broadway), and Armstrong, a whirl of color in his red blazer, reliving the timeless guitar moves of heroes past, didn’t miss a trick. When the lead singer drops out and lets the crowd pick up the melody? “You all go crazy when I count to four”? Every variation of “whoa-oh-oh” call and response? All happily indulged, each as enlivening as shouting “charge” after “ba-dada-da-da-da.” 

These are songs meant to be heard in sports complexes—a basketball or hockey arena will do in a pinch, but a baseball stadium is ideal. The two covers belonged there too, while showing the band’s range of taste: the overfamiliarity of a perfectly acceptable Kiss tune, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” balanced by the relative obscurity of “Knowledge,” by their Bay Area pals in Operation Ivy, for which they brought someone on stage to play the three simple chords on guitar. (He rocked it.)

Even when Dookie introduced their specific brand of sneaker-scuffing fidget-punk, which sounded familiar but wasn’t quite traceable to a single source, Green Day’s ambitions were not just to make punk pop but to make it epic. If the Ramones and the hardcore kids who followed them wanted to see what you could strip away, these guys wanted to see what you could add back. “Welcome to Paradise” rumbled with a classic power-trio mix of precision and grandeur that hinted at the future, and the way the loping bass line and scattered drum pattern of “Longview” lock into the crosscut guitar on the chorus is still a revelation, Both were set high points last night. 

“Put your phones down!” Armstrong ordered us at one point like the middle-aged dad he is, but those phones were held aloft during the big ballads, the surest repositories for nostalgia. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was the beginning of a somewhat downer of homestretch that also included the newish “Still Breathing” (reportedly a 2016 Alt-Rock #1) letting some air out of the night’s tires. If the overblown, overlong rock mini-opera “Jesus of Suburbia” transported you, then the balladic send-off “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” was a much-needed chillout. If not, it was a slight anticlimax. 

In contrast, Dookie tracks like the frantically tuneful “Basket Case” and the buoyantly resigned “When I Come Around” still sounded fresh, but could that be just my nostalgia talking? I still do have fond memories of a moment when the commercial potential of underground rock was being realized, a moment I was just old enough to understand as a cultural watershed and just young enough not to recognize as a passing (and even aesthetically conservative) phase. Back then, you could still feel a little thrill of transgression in suggesting that no, actually it was good for punk bands to get on the radio rather than sticking it out in DIY scenes forever. If nothing else, the show Green Day put on last night proves I wasn’t totally wrong about that.

Setlists

Weezer
Hero
Hash Pipe
All the Good Ones
Beverly Hills
The End of the Game
My Name Is Jonas
Pork and Beans
Feels Like Summer
All My Favorite Songs
Undone – The Sweater Song
Surf Wax America
El Scorcho
Island in the Sun
Africa (Toto cover)
California Snow
Say It Ain’t So
Buddy Holly

Fall Out Boy
The Phoenix
Sugar, We’re Goin Down
Irresistible
Uma Thurman
Grand Theft Autumn/Where Is Your Boy
Save Rock and Roll
The Last of the Real Ones
Dance, Dance
A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More “Touch Me”
This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race
My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)
I Don’t Care
Thnks fr th Mmrs
Centuries
Saturday

Green Day
American Idiot
Holiday
Know Your Enemy
Pollyanna
Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Longview
Welcome to Paradise
Hitchin’ a Ride
Rock and Roll All Nite (Kiss cover)
Brain Stew
St. Jimmy
When I Come Around
21 Guns
Minority
Knowledge (Operation Ivy cover)
Basket Case
She
Wake Me Up When September Ends
Still Breathing
Jesus of Suburbia
Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)

All photos by Lucy Hawthorne