Live Report: Bad Religion

The Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., May 14, 1998

Greg Graffin wasn't impressed by the final episode of Seinfeld. "It sucked," he announced to the capacity crowd downstairs at the Middle East as he took the stage. "You didn't miss anything." Not that you'd really expect Graffin to be a big supporter of the popular sitcom. His band, Bad Religion, is about as far from Seinfeld as they come. Seinfeld is New York: Bad Religion, California. Seinfeld's glib: Band Religion, earnest. The characters on Seinfeld don't do anything: Bad Religion sweat. A lot. Seinfeld's funny: Bad Religion, serious. And Seinfeld quit while it was ahead: Bad Religion will never give up.

Well, actually, Graffin did try his hand at some humor. "We decided to come back to the smaller club circuit so we could thank all of you individually," he explained. Then, stealing one of Steve Martin's old riffs, he began to quickly thank individual audience members. Fortunately, that didn't last for more than fifteen seconds before Graffin signaled drummer Bobby Schayer and Bad Religion got down to business -- the business of playing smart, fast, melodic punk rock with meaning and purpose.

It's a business Bad Religion have been in for almost two decades now, give or take a few years when Graffin was too busy studying rocks to rock (he got a masters degree in geology from UCLA and was close to finishing a Ph.D. in zoology at Cornell when Bad Religion signed to Atlantic a couple albums ago). There was one major personnel change along the way: guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz quit to focus on a little record label he owns called Epitaph a couple years ago. But his shoes were ably filled by Brian Baker, an esteemed punk veteran of Minor Threat and Dag Nasty who is -- technically -- a better guitarist than Gurewitz. And so Bad Religion remain the oldest hardcore band who still matter to the kids.

The smaller venue tour -- the downstairs room at the Middle East holds a mere 600 -- is, as advertised, Bad Religion's way of thanking those kids. And, as Graffin pointed out midway through a seventy-minute set packed with twenty-nine tunes, it's also a way for the band to polish up the tunes from their new album, No Substance , before they join this summer's Warped Tour as one of the headliners. Not that any of the new tunes appeared to need much work: if they were any more polished, the band would have slid right off the stage and into the mosh pit.

The set kicked off with an oldie but goody, "Suffer" from the 1988 album of the same name. Then it was on to a new one, "Punk Rock Song," as in "This is just a punk rock song ... ," a high-velocity, hook-laden, mini-anthem which certainly wouldn't have been out of place on Suffer. "21st Century (Digital Boy)," a tuneful track that appeared on 1990's Against the Grain and 1994's Stranger Than Fiction, helped incite the mostly male audience into a pogo-like group mosh, but everyone dutifully obeyed the club's policy of no more crowd surfing until people stop getting hurt at all-ages shows.

Graffin teased the crowd a little, offering people water and then throwing the cups at them. But it was the kind of good-natured prank an older brother plays on you -- a boyish way of showing genuine affection. In return, the guys up front pumped their fists and shouted along to songs like "Hippie Killers," "American Jesus," "Infected," and even the new single "The Biggest Killer In American History."