BB King Blues Club
August 25, 2006
Something great happened a little less than halfway through Rancid’s Friday night set at BB King’s: the band started playing “Knowledge,” the first song from Operation Ivy’s 1989 album Energy. Two of Rancid’s four members had been members of Op Ivy, a Berkely ska-punk band that lasted three years and only toured the country once, and Op Ivy has always been the albatross around Rancid’s neck; no matter how great Rancid got, people would always say how Op Ivy was so much better and these kids don’t even know. I always thought that was bullshit, but Energy is still an unbelievably great little album, one I played almost every day for a few months in ninth grade. I saw Rancid for the first time ten years ago, and since then I’ve seen them every time I’ve had a chance, which hasn’t been all that often since the band likes to take long-ass breaks between albums. But I’ve seen them enough times to know that Rancid never plays Op Ivy songs. It’s always been damn near unthinkable, like seeing Fugazi do “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” or something. So when “Knowledge” started, there was this wave of wide-eyed recognition going around the club, people all over the club making eye contact and mouthing holy shit! to each other, this great weird feeling of mutual recognition and amazement, and it lasted all of five seconds before someone inexplicably dumped an entire beer on Zach Baron’s head and some of it got on me. But then the same thing happened about forty minutes later, when the band came out to do their encore. All four of them came out with acoustic guitars (even the drummer) and did a huge singalong version of “Fall Back Down,” the band’s last single, their big breakup song, and then they segued directly into “Sound System,” Op Ivy’s best song. Finally, after all these years, they were giving us exactly what we wanted, and they didn’t even need to do it. Just being there would’ve been enough.
I didn’t think I’d ever get to see Rancid again. Haunted Cities, the 2005 album from Tim Armstrong’s punk-rap side project the Transplants, was the first Armstrong-related album I’ve ever sold back to the used-record store. A few months after that piece-of-shit album’s release, the Transplants broke up acrimoniously. Travis Barker and Skinhead Rob, the other two guys in the group, hinted that Armstrong was just too unreliable to work with; instead, they said, they were forming a group with (seriously) Paul Wall. On Haunted Cities, Armstrong had a lot of lyrics about sniffing blow and doing shady shit like that. This stuff was really, really not fun to hear; Armstrong had started Rancid, after all, only after he’d emerged victoriously from rehab. And the Transplants’ breakup had come after all sorts of weird moves and personal upheavals. In 2003, Armstrong’s wife Brody Dalle, the frontwoman of the Distillers, dumped him for the guy from Queens of the Stone Age. After that, Armstrong did everything he could to “go pop,” whatever that means: he cowrote most of Pink’s (pretty great) 2003 album Try This, he signed Rancid to a major label, he signed the Transplants to a major label. And none of it worked; even the Pink album bricked, and Armstrong didn’t come close to the fame he’d had back in the mid-90s when he was turning down major-label contracts right and left. After the Transplants’ breakup, it looked like maybe he was done, which would mean Rancid was done too. So for a few of us at least, it was a big, big deal when the band booked a four-night run at BB King’s, when they willed themselves back into existence.
In 2006, Rancid’s records sound like comfort food, but then again they basically always did. I got into the band the same way tens of thousands of other ninth-graders must’ve done: I saw Armstrong’s picture in a magazine and thought that holy shit this guy has a mohawk and who even has mohawks anymore and that’s awesome. But what kept me was the sense of pride in the face of despair. Especially in light of all the self-pitying grunge stuff that still pretty much ran the world in 1994 or so, Rancid was all about self-actualization. Armstrong and Lars Fredrickson didn’t sing about hating themselves; they sang about standing tall in the face of poverty and addiction and squalor, of finding strength in friends and music and beer, of figuring out that you loved yourself and helping your friends figure out that they loved themselves. Not to get too emo-personal here, but that’s pretty much exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and it still resonates more now than it probably should. The music was mostly stuck in circa-78 fundamentalist British punk, but that’s an awfully rich period, and the band eventually reached out into ska and reggae and dancehall and rap and disco and folk, internalizing all this stuff and phasing it into their frantic heartache without ever breaking stride, still bringing the meaty hooks and the singalong choruses and the viscerally satisfying rollercoaster tempos. When Armstrong started sort-of rapping in the Transplants, it really wasn’t that big of a surprise. For one thing, he’d always been sort-of rapping; that broken-tooth garbleslur can only be called “singing” in the most nebulous sense. And he’d always been talking about rap stuff: coming up from nothing, staying true to yourself and your friends. The best Rancid videos (“Salvation,” “Ruby Soho”) are basically rap videos except with people playing guitar. They’ve always been knee-deep in Cali rap iconography, too: lowriders, Cadillacs, baseball bats, porkpie hats. Their thing is being strong. So it’s immensely gratifying when they reaffirm that they actually are strong, that they’re capable of coming back from things that would’ve killed ten weaker bands and playing one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.
The internet says that they’re working on a new album, which is awesome, but it’s also awesome that they didn’t play anything new on Friday night. People don’t go to Rancid shows to hear new songs; we go to hear the songs we’ve loved for years, to sing along loud enough to drown out the band, to get drunk and throw down in the pit like it was ten years ago. And the band obliged. They only played for about an hour, but that’s long enough to play a whole lot of Rancid songs. They started out with two of their most indelible singalongs (“Radio” and “Roots Radicals”), but they drew from every one of their albums. Armstrong still did the thing where he barely says a word between songs and just lets Fredrickson talk instead. Fredrickson still did the thing where he tells us not to act like jocks. Matt Freeman still did the thing where he plays mindbendingly nimble bass solos and then sings a song or two in a raspy roar thick enough that it made depressingly perfect sense when he was mistakenly diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years ago. Bret Reed still did the thing where he plays drums. Apparently the entire universe isn’t as amped as I am about a Rancid reunion; right before the band went on, tickets still hadn’t sold out, and I’d never seen Rancid in a venue this small. But that made the whole thing more personal; there were times when Armstrong was perched on a monitor, leering out at the crowd like a gargoyle, and I could’ve grabbed his arm if I’d wanted to. The pit was as hectic as anything I’ve seen lately. I thought I’d be safe standing on the outside when Fredrickson was doing his acoustic Billy Bragg cover, but no: someone came flying out of nowhere and shoulderblocked me in the kidney. And the smell was fucking disgusting, like a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips left out open in the rain. And still, everything was vaguely comforting, even the sensation of fighting five dudes to stand up, of trying not to hit the guy with the bandanna and the no shirt too hard. I needed this when I was sixteen, and I still need it. Maybe you do too.