Green Day's New York show, one of four small-venue dates the band played before its fall arena tour, felt like it was shot out of a circus cannon. Roaring through a song-by-song performance of their latest disc, the punk-rock opera American Idiot (which describes the human wreckage of a global war from the vantage point of a 7-Eleven parking lot), the trio evoked everyone from Phil Spector to the Who. Despite the concept, singer Billie Joe Armstrong made no awkward political statements between songs. Instead, Green Day slammed home anthems such as "American Idiot" and "Holiday" with all the power of a band that is thrilled it can make such a fine noise. The real beauty, however, could be found in the pathos the group wrung between the power chords, especially in wistful tunes such as "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Like new songs about amnesia ("Whatsername") and sedating yourself ("Give Me Novacaine"), "September" cleverly uses metaphor to make a political point about the danger of denial. Armstrong, who usually mugs like a silent-film villain, played it straight as he sang the beautiful lyric "Here comes the rain again/Falling from the stars." At moments like this, the band achieved the sort of punk-rock greatness some critics have accused it of merely imitating. Green Day, surprisingly, have become sublime.
Naturally, such delicate moments pass. For an encore, Green Day smacked the audience with their first big hit, 1994's "Longview," then blasted though Queen's "We Are the Champions." When Armstrong channeled Freddie Mercury by putting a piece of black electrical tape on his upper lip, he became just another knucklehead, singing to a club full of goof balls about all of us American idiots. But, hey, there's a doofus sort of poetry to that, too.
This story appeared in the October 28th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.