Thursday night over the course of nearly three hours, Green Day turned in a polished, professional, fairly non-political, largely predictable set at Wrigley Field…
Green Day’s career arc is an interesting one to look back at.
After forming in 1986 (that’s right, Green Day has been around for almost 35 years), it took 8 years and 3 studio albums for the punk trio to find breakout success, striking gold with the 1994 release of Dookie – an album named after fecal matter that charted in 7 countries, eventually selling 20 million copies worldwide.
It’s a form of mainstream appeal rarely afforded to punk rock acts.
It’s the type of success that has crippled many other bands.
And it’s an amount of time most groups chasing success today simply aren’t afforded.
Green Day, predictably/understandably, struggled to follow it up.
Despite releasing new music at the very punk rock clip of 4 albums in 6 years, sales plummeted – even at the mid-90s height of the music industry boom. The three albums following Dookie (1995’s Insomniac, 1997’s Nimrod and 2000’s Warning) all combined to sell less than a third of what Dookie did and by 1997 Green Day had gone from being one of the most talked about Woodstock ’94 performers to playing venues like the Riviera Theatre locally (capacity 2,500).
Fast forward to 2003 as the group entered the studio to begin work on a make or break 7th studio album just as music industry upheaval was entering full effect following the rise of Napster and online file trading, rendering the selling of new music more difficult than ever.
Green Day began work on a collection of songs to be released as an album called Cigarettes and Valentines… until the master tapes were stolen. The band decided to scrap the sessions entirely and start over, ultimately crafting a new batch of songs influenced by the 70s concept albums of artists like Queen and The Who.
It became a collection of a songs with a political slant which directly addressed controversial topics like then President George W. Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq.
American Idiot was released in 2004 – to that point, the longest career gap between new Green Day album releases – and struck a societal chord, crossing over to the mainstream and exposing the punk trio to a new generation of fans, selling 16 million copies worldwide (more copies sold in America than anywhere else) en route to becoming, arguably, the most unexpected hit of their career.
3 of their next 5 albums flopped.
But their legacy was cemented upon their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 (no member of the band older than 43 at the time).
Thursday’s crowd at Wrigley was by no means a sell out but still nearly doubled that of any other non-festival, headlining, Chicago Green Day appearance. The group’s ability to sell in the neighborhood of 40,000 tickets in the year 2017 is thanks largely to the career revitalization they experienced following the release of the politically charged American Idiot album in 2004.
And that’s what makes Thursday’s concert a bit of a disappointment.
“We’re leaving the political sh-t behind! We’re leaving it in St. Louis!” joked frontman Billie Joe Armstrong early in the show. “This ain’t no political party. It’s a celebration!”
Fair enough. But Armstrong reached a new generation of fans and achieved increased concert ticket and album sales thanks largely to that “political sh-t.” And, now that his band is able to sell a lot of concert tickets again, the man who voiced the frustrations of a generation is trying his best to be non-controversial. Say what you will about President Donald Trump, but fans that embraced Billie Joe Armstrong as their anti-establishment voice in 2004 deserve better in 2017. And Thursday night, in that regard, Armstrong failed to deliver.
To his credit, he did follow that with a message advocating for general inclusion (as he begged fans to put away their phones and live in the moment). And he went on to condemn neo-Nazis. But that was late in the show and it took him almost two hours to get there. And while it was certainly an important message for kids to hear in today’s world, it was hard to view the earlier anti-political sentiment as anything but blatantly hypocritical.
In 2017, it’s difficult to call Green Day a punk act. What they are is a polished, professional rock and roll act. And there’s nothing wrong that. In terms of putting on a show, Green Day puts on a pretty good one. Fireworks exploded during a spirited take on “Bang Bang” second in the set and pyro fired during “Revolution Radio” next. There was even a drum solo!
The group paused during “Minority” as Armstrong led the crowd in a spirited sing-a-long on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” More fireworks followed. “Never in my life did I think we’d be playing Wrigley Field!” said the singer in clear, heartfelt astonishment. And it was endearing.
Billie Joe remains every bit as animated as ever, sprinting endlessly across the stage (there was even a special camera angle set up to properly capture for the jumbo screens his running jumps from a small riser on stage). He played guitar behind his head, balanced on one leg and the led the crowd through an exhausting number of “Hey! Oh!” chants. And it was all fairly entertaining. But it was also predictable. Because nothing in a Green Day set ever changes. And, Thursday night, Green Day checked off just about every box on the rock concert cliche checklist within about 15 minutes.
Green Day performs now as a 6 piece band, ensuring that the songs sound flawless even as Armstrong runs around playing rock star. Songs like “2,000 Light Years Away,” “Welcome to Paradise” and “American Idiot,” in particular, all still very much have teeth and picked up the pace Thursday night.
Which was important because there were a lot of drawn out portions of the set that went on way too long. An extended take on “Hitchin’ a Ride” bogged things down early. And “King For a Day” veered into schlock later with a saxophone powered cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” falling therein. It seemed to drag on endlessly (as did the medley of the Isley Brothers, Rolling Stones, Monty Python and Beatles that followed unnecessarily next). Thursday’s set went nearly 3 hours but could’ve fit comfortably in 2.
All of that said, despite any of this critic’s issues with Thursday’s set, the crowd ate it up. They were engaged vocally throughout even on new cuts like “Still Breathing” from the band’s latest album Revolution Radio (astonishingly, their 12th).
It could be argued that no punk act in the history of recorded music has established the longevity or body of work that Green Day has. Punk acts rarely age well and, in that sense, Green Day has very much defied the odds. But with 12 studio albums under their belt, it’s a shame they don’t saunter a little further beneath the surface each night on stage. Instead, they continue the disappointing trend of playing it safe that has defined most of their last ten years.
Thursday night’s set wasn’t without entertaining moments. But the heroes Green Day blatantly strove to emulate all night long at Wrigley Field usually aimed higher than merely entertaining.
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )