With a career extending back to the Reagan administration, the members of Bad Religion are punk’s elder statesmen now, and they know it. “We believe Bad Religion has no business being up here at this stage in our career,” said singer Greg Graffin halfway through the band’s 90-minute set. “But you guys just won’t let us go away.”
That goes both ways. Bad Religion is a band that has remained as vital two decades into its career as it was when it started, and the band’s latest album The Empire Strikes First is as good as anything it’s recorded. By combining punk’s buzzsaw guitars and rhythmic intensity with a keen sense of melody and Graffin’s always-commanding vocals, Bad Religion has created a formula that never sounds dated, even if it’s hardly changed.
Sure, some of the band’s tunes—like “21st Century Digital Boy” and “Infected,” both of which they played—are more listener-friendly than others, but even those songs carry a punch that still satisfies even the most purist punks. (As if to prove the point, a kid in the balcony jumped off onto the stage after Graffin’s self-deprecating comment.)
If anything, the band’s twin enemies—government and organized religion—provide even more lyric fodder than they have at any time since Bad Religion came on the scene. So it’s no surprise they delivered the new “Let Them Eat War” and “Sinister Rouge” (featuring the lyric “child molesters and Jesuits/ holding secret secret conference/ under the pontiff’s nose”) with even more intensity than tunes they recorded when they were in their 20s.
Though Graffin, a Cornell Ph.D. who just published his dissertation “Evolution, Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview,” is the group’s frontman, guitarist Brett Gurewitz is every bit as much its emotional center. He left the band in the early 1990s to focus on running its label, Epitaph, but returned in 2001, and Bad Religion is far better when he’s around. Standing quietly at stage right for most of the show, Gurewitz spoke up with concise, biting solos on “Generator” and “God’s Love.”
Punk to the core, Bad Religion has never worried much about style and image. No piercings or torn clothes, and Graffin looks more like a grad student than a stereotypical punk rocker. The band’s harmonies on “Los Angeles is Burning” owe as much to The Beatles as its punk predecessors, and Gurewitz’s solos at times thrust him right into the “guitar hero” spotlight The Clash used to make fun of.
But as The Clash demonstrated, punk ain’t about hairstyle or primitivism. And the fact that Bad Religion is still able to incite a crowd of 1,500 to mosh is a testament to credentials that rise above labels.