“Do you want a party, or do you want a celebration?” Billie Joe Armstrong asked at a hectoring pitch over the rhythm-section break in “Letterbomb,” during Green Day’s September 15th performance at New York’s Irving Plaza. There was an indistinct so-so roar from the floor, so Armstrong shouted the question again, louder, like a preacher addressing hard-of-hearing sinners. Still unsatisfied with the answer, the singer-guitarist looked out at the tightly packed mob and bellowed, “There’s a fucking difference!”
The wily Armstrong actually had it both ways, all night. And it was a long one. Green Day – in sextet form with Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, drummer Tré Cool and second guitarist Jason White supplemented at points by a keyboard player and background singer – played for over two-and-a-half hours, racing through more than 40 songs if you include the classic-rock teases of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The first half-hour of the show – an invite-heavy event promoting the band’s tie-in with Nokia and AT&T’s new music-streaming service – featured a streak of songs from ¡Uno! (Reprise), the first of Green Day’s three new albums, out this week, with an unexpected shot of “Stop When the Red Lights Flash,” from November’s ¡Dos!, in the middle. There was a set list apparently, taped to the floor. Armstrong kept looking down at it, as if he couldn’t remember what was next. But logic and planning soon went to hell as Armstrong, careening around the stage like a drunken sailor imitating a burlesque dancer and executing Olympic-quality stage dives, played “stump the band” with the rest of Green Day and their Nineties punk-imp catalog. A futile stab at “86” from 1995’s Insomniac veered into a long jump back to “At the Library” from the 1990 debut album, 39/Smooth. After a punchy “When I Come Around,” as the rest of Green Day looked like it was about to walk offstage, Armstrong reached for another guitar and kicked off an extra run of tunes, culminating in the punk-kegger clip of Nimrod‘s “King for a Day,” with the usual detour into the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
Anarchy Without the Opera
That was the party. The celebration was more complex. Lacking the narrative binds and topical harangue of Green Day’s pair of operas, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, ¡Uno! is deliberately lighter fare: packed-action power pop, with bark-along choruses. But in the hot temper and profane urgency of “Let Yourself Go” and “Stay the Night,” Armstrong sounds like he’s firing his bullets wildly now, instead of in operatic order.
At Irving Plaza, Green Day executed the ’65-Who-ish pow of “Carpe Diem” and the homicidal hip-hop-Clash fantasy “Kill the DJ” like unfinished business, compact extensions of the betrayed ideals and emotional anarchy twisted into the riff-and-hook fuses of Idiot‘s “Holiday” and the 21st Century warning “Know Your Enemy.” Instead of finally closing the main set at the obvious peak, “King for a Day,” Armstrong called for the metallic-ballad sobriety of Idiot‘s “Wake Me When September Ends.” Quickly returning for an encore, Green Day then paired “American Idiot” with a first-anniversary present to the Occupy movement: a surprise blast of “99 Revolutions” from ¡Tré! It is already my favorite track from the entire trilogy. Armstrong loves it so much he called for the band to repeat the song’s big finish – a paraphrase of the manic gallop at the end of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – three times before finally saying good night, for good.
It was an ironic end to a gig with corporate branding. But it was the right confession: Anyone can throw a party. Celebration must be earned.