Wednesday night was probably the first time a singer used the phrase “hemagglutinin” onstage at the Echo. Longtime L.A. punk fans know that can mean only one thing -- local heroes Bad Religion were playing a rare club-sized show, and its vocalist/UCLA biology professor Greg Graffin was warning the front rows that he’d recently had the flu.
“That’s the ‘H’ in H1N2,’ It describes proteins in the virus,” he said, launching into a riff on influenza virology that was as packed with information as the band’s songs. He wrapped up with a public health warning about how hard it is to stop the spread of infection. “That’s the thing about the flu vaccine -- it changes every year, and they don’t always get it right. But this year they did a good job.”
That tangent, delivered to a humid room of fans younger than Bad Religion itself, summed up the band’s mission for the last 30-plus years.
Bad Religion’s songs pair withering skepticism with a melodic, harmony-rich spin on double-time SoCal punk. For three generations, the sextet’s music has been a first inoculation against the crazy-making irrationality of American life and politics. Wednesday night’s rowdy (and endearingly shaggy) hometown show displayed how many fans are healthier for it.
The Echo set was tied to a new album, “True North,” the band’s 16th studio release. It continues Bad Religion’s recent streak of albums playing to both sides of its legacy -- that of a pioneering L.A. band making discomfiting diagnoses of society; and an act that has occasionally flirted with mainstream rock stardom, particularly in its ‘90s run on Atlantic Records.
Singles such as “Robin Hood in Reverse” felt memorable by a first pass, while the two-minute seethe of “Vanity” restated that when its wants to, Bad Religion (and particularly its most recent addition, drummer Brooks Wackerman) can play faster and harder than almost any of its peers. In the small setting of the Echo, the band’s stacked harmonies were less pristine but more human -- a nice touch for a band whose singer is dedicated to debunking the idea of free will.
But more than any one album cycle, Wednesday’s show suggested a renaissance in Bad Religion’s influence. Perhaps not so much musically, but in the science-minded, defiantly agnostic (or outright atheist) culture of contemporary youth. From skeptic authors Christopher Hitchens and Brian Leiter to the science threads of Reddit and polls suggesting that 20% of Americans now have no formal religious affiliation, Bad Religion’s worldview seems ever more prescient.
Graffin’s lyrics, so often described as emotionally distant and needlessly wonky, can also have the opposite effect of sending a curious young punk to her dictionary, starting a lifetime of inquiry. For a budding skeptic growing up in the evangelical South or Midwest, hearing the sarcastic chants (“In God we trust, because he’s one of us”) of 1993’s “American Jesus” on mainstream rock radio could feel like the clouds parting. When the band played it at the Echo, it hit with the pleasure of a teenage-formative hit song, and as an adult reminder of how religious fervor can still steer American culture (remember the debate about whether making insurance cover contraception was a Marxist attack on religious liberty or not?)
The band played to the current fetish for ‘80s L.A. punk history, and ‘80s-era songs such as “Suffer” and “We’re Only Gonna Die” were as dark and searing as their titles. But more than professors, Bad Religion’s members are rock-band veterans -- they can also be really funny. At Wednesday’s show, guitarist Brian Baker (formerly of the immortal Minor Threat) wore an NPR promo T-shirt -- perhaps a wry nod to Bad Religion’s current age demographic -- and band members had a running gag where they repeatedly threatened to cover Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Baker even briefly left the stage to hit the restroom while his bandmates needled him in his absence.
Hopefully, no one actually came down with Graffin’s flu after the show. But it’s more likely that the Echo crowd went home, looked up the definition of “hemagglutinin,” learned about how diseases really work, and became Bad Religion fans all over again.