Sailin' On

Bad Brains on a boat—as absurd as it sounds, but thankfully much better, too

To assess the true character and worth of a concert audience, observe the moshpit. It is the most accurate measure of douche-ocity. Do the sweaty gentlemen therein sneer and spit and throw pile-driving elbows at innocent bystanders? Do they kick like mules at soft and oblivious noggins when passed overhead? Do they take Brad Paisley far too literally and attempt to crudely inspect moshing women for ticks? And most importantly, do they pick up people who fall down? It's that precise moment—when a terrifying, homicidal-looking dude snaps out of his fist-flailing, teeth-gnashing reverie for half a second to politely yank some poor sap up off the ground—that gives me hope for my gender, my generation, my species. In such perverse circumstances, it's the sweetest act of chivalry imaginable.

You will be pleased to learn that the scrum at the great Bad Brains boat cruise last Monday night excelled at both enthusiasm and etiquette. It was a hilariously violent scene, a chaotic maritime melee that erupted the second the beloved D.C. hardcore quartet launched into "I Against I." If you've never seen a moshpit on a boat . . . Jesus. You owe it to yourself. But even the blood-thirstiest revelers were willing to lend a helping hand if someone crashed to the floor, or, as it happened, if the roof started caving in.

During the placid reggae jam "Jah Love"—off the band's new so-so comeback platter Build a Nation, and one of a carefully deployed handful of slow-jam chill-out tunes to break up the breakneck cacophony—a giant beam somehow detached from the roof of our fair vessel, The Temptress. Ten to 15 feet long, I'd say. It dropped right on our heads, but rather than break it into pieces and fashion weapons suitable for hand-to-hand combat, we grabbed it and funneled it out in one piece, hand to hand, person to person, out toward the deck and to safety, calmly and efficiently, as though excavating an archeological dig. Moments later came Nation's "Expand Your Soul," a full-tilt macho burner that had us all smashing into each other again. Politely.

Dr. Know, rockin' The Temptress
photo: John E. Coli Nikolai
Dr. Know, rockin' The Temptress

This could've been awful. The Rocks Off Concert Series lures people onto The Temptress all summer long to putter around the Hudson River (fabulous view of the Statue of Liberty, not to mention Jersey), but the bands and DJs are usually more booze-cruise appropriate-—cover bands and frat-rockers and shit. (Oh man, Booga Sugar August 9 will be awesome, though.) Seriously, Bad Brains? For a band whose NYC invasions are the stuff of legend—the Live at CBGB 1982 DVD is excellent, so intense and brutal it's hysterical—slapping them on a cruise ship felt absurd. Is this a joke? And wouldn't anyone willing to drop $25 to be on that ship treat it like a joke, like cheap kitsch? What the hell is this crowd gonna be like? "If there's no moshing, they might as well be playing in a glass case," a friend somberly warned. "Or on a boat."

Such fears were justifiable, but unjustified. It wasn't the Hate Boat, exactly—the Gleeful Rage Boat, maybe. The crowd was exceedingly friendly and largely thirtysomething, which is odd. You'd figure on punk lifers sentient enough to have loved Bad Brains from the moment they surfaced in '82, on that famous ROIR cassette, bright yellow cover, with a cartoon lightning bolt striking the Capitol dome, so perfect. Or fresh-faced teenagers getting their first shot at enjoying the band in real time at all. The mob gathered there instead was halfway between maiden voyage and nostalgia trip, perhaps inexplicably pining for mid-'90s comeback-trail Bad Brains, those awkward half-hardcore/half-metal records (one on Madonna's label!) that even devout fans only tolerate. Before the show began, everyone smoked out on the deck and joked about advancing age (one mulled over buying a T-shirt reading "S.H.I.T.: So Happy I'm Thirty") and flirted and wistfully recalled recent love affairs ("His gun almost went off in my bed twice!"). It felt like a 15-year high school reunion.

Inside, and once The Rock had begun, it felt like a bar fight on a bus. Bodies flung everywhere. The Temptress is a double-decker; the lower level, containing both the stage and the dance floor, is surrounded by an oval with a comically low ceiling—anyone over six feet had to either slouch dramatically or risk standing in the center, which was entirely moshpit. The upper level offered a more comfortable vantage, where you could high-five crowd-surfers who batted at the speakers affixed to the ceiling like low-hanging piñatas.

I haven't mentioned the band itself much, because the band itself didn't much matter. Honestly, they were pretty great, that fierce and unrelenting whirlwind you remember from that ROIR cassette or Rock for Light. They bashed it out despite being boxed in by that six-foot height clearance (bassist Darryl Jenifer nearly had to stoop himself), guitarist Dr. Know unleashing a screeching solo on the furious "Right Brigade" and firing off melodic and hypnotic thrash riffs throughout. Build a Nation has its moments: The let's-take-a-breather reggae tracks have a pretty radiance, and the hardcore burners get the job done when they don't veer too close to bonehead metalhead territory—a hazardous resemblance to Biohazard. But live, Bad Brains' time-honored formula of three or four thrash jabs followed by a downtempo palette-cleanser felt a lot less contrived and a lot more natural, a necessary act of inhaling and exhaling. "I and I Survive" turned into a torch-ballad sing-along, frankly beautiful; excellent counterpoint for when the band ripped through "Banned in D.C." and The Temptress went apeshit.

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