Green Day shakes and shouts
Over the course of its nearly 20-year career, Green Day has only grown more interested in the power and potential of its pop. During the punkish band’s Thursday night performance at the Henry Fonda Theater, the trio repeatedly used rock’s oldest tricks -- sock-hop melodies, British Invasion swagger, pep-rally shouts -- to make the counterculture seem more fun than the mainstream.
The concert, one of several kick-the-tires warmup shows across the country before the trio mounts a full tour behind the ambitious new album “21st Century Breakdown,” saw frontman Billie Joe Armstrong scuttling about the stage with an eagerness somewhere between James Brown and a riled-up badger. Bassist Mike Dirnt was all sinew in a muscle tee and spiky flat-top, and drummer Tre Cool’s casual goofiness fit with his rambunctious fills. The band’s left-leaning politics is a big part of its two most recent albums, but at the Fonda, Green Day preferred the shared joys of a loud megaphone to the specifics of any message coming through it. Great pop needs a big target, and with its new album, Green Day has returned to two of the biggest ones, boredom and heartbreak. The first half of the band’s two-hour-plus set was essentially a recap of “Breakdown’s” big moments.
The political barbs were there, with Armstrong lamenting in the title track that he was “born into Nixon, I was raised in hell.” But while the spittle of the group’s Grammy-nominated 2004 effort “American Idiot” was meant for a stereotypically “American” culture, “Breakdown” is more interested in how that culture warps a person’s identity and gets in the way of love.
The heavy stomp and sailing harmonies of the single “Know Your Enemy” could have been directed at some vague foe, as the lines “Violence is an energy / Silence is the enemy” imply. But the album’s recurring images of lovers adrift -- a concept album, “Breakdown” centers on two teens, Christian and Gloria, coping with life in modern America -- could just as easily be a reminder to never go to bed angry with your significant other.
Though punk was supposed to be a rebuttal to the idea of Big Rock, Green Day has perfected the play between specific lyrical details and the stickiness of their choruses. “Last of the American Girls” has a close cousin in Tom Petty’s bleary, upbeat “American Girl,” though adapted with images of the all-ages club circuit.
It’s easy to imagine the slow burn and earnest falsetto of “21 Guns” played on a 12-string acoustic on a ‘70s Laurel Canyon front porch. That’s the real secret of Green Day’s success -- when your small ideas are right, they feel huge, and you can treat them accordingly onstage.
The second half of the night was an endearing hit parade of songs from the band’s older albums. Armstrong took deep catalog requests from the crowd and invited multiple fans onstage to helm the microphone for older singles.
The band indulged some cheeky diversions, such as when Cool and Armstrong swapped instruments for a country song, or when Armstrong sprawled onstage during the long crescendo of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Though ‘90s hits such as “Longview” and “Basket Case” eventually could become the classic rock of Generation Y, the tracks from “Idiot” had a unique potency.
Cuts like “Jesus of Suburbia” seemed to remind fans of a precise moment when a favorite band grew into something bigger and defining in their lives.
The most telling moment might have come early in the night. After a rousing start to “East Jesus Nowhere,” Armstrong pulled a tiny blond child onstage to sing along with him. The kid knew every word and soon crowd-surfed back to his waiting mother. It took a big chorus to get his pre-tween attention, but a budding rebel was probably made that night.