Passionate, radical and humanizing are the songs of Tim Armstrong. On record, this punk protest vibe works well, but, unfortunately, a lot of the essential nuances get lost in the aggression and volume of a Rancid show.
I've spent a lot of time with the albums of Rancid. Sure, my introduction was the blatant pop punk of "...And Out Come the Wolves" as a 13-year-old, but "Let's Go" punkified me. Naturally, I went through phases where I all but dismissed the band and was even convinced at one point that Tim Armstrong couldn't play guitar (man, was I wrong!). But I rediscovered them as a 20-something with a couple of heartbreaks, laborious jobs and unjust confrontations notched around my belt. And all I can say is Tim Armstrong is the man. He wears his life and his heart on his sleeve.
Well, he might not have had any sleeves on his studded vest at the Pageant on Monday night, but it's pretty obvious he writes from the heart. This sentiment bursts at the seams of all his output. This St. Louis show was absolutely no exception.
The spider web tattoo-domed Armstrong first took the stage with his latest project, Tim Timebomb and Friends. With a handful of musicians (including organ, trombone, trumpet players), Tim ran through a handful of quasi-traditional-sounding tunes about booze, parties and women. It was incredible to see him in his element and having fun, but his performance of the Op Ivy classic "Sound System" and the Specials' "Concrete Jungle" were surreal. To hear Tim declare in his wobbly rasp that music is the one thing that he can depend on gave me goose bumps. He had "guests" come onstage like his long-time best friend and Rancid bassist, Matt Freeman, and a Nebraskan farmer-clothed Lars Fredriksen, both of whom played one quick song and exited. Armstrong adamantly promised that they'd be back.
Rancid took the stage several minutes later as Armstrong strummed out the chords and slurred the opening lines of "Radio." What better way to start a Rancid show? The song is basically a love letter to music (in particular, the Clash), and how when you've got nothing else, music will always be there and pick you up. "Radio" is also a definitive Rancid song, throbbing melodies on the bass, bloody screams from the throat of Lars Fredriksen, simple guitar leads and the sensitive/aggressive or loud/soft dynamic. From there the band hopped all over their catalog, with an overwhelming emphasis on "...And out Come the Wolves."
Thankfully, they also covered quite a bit of "Let's Go," the first album as a foursome with Lars. Classics like "Radio," "Black and Blue" and "St. Mary" were all spewed forth from the band in a blitz of power chords, gang chants and a relentless snare drum. However, most of Rancid's songs are pretty melodic, and those melodies were basically lost in the excessive volume. This was especially true with "Nihilism," which would have been unrecognizable had Tim not uttered the opening lines of the song over long and ratty pick scrapes on guitar. Similar issues plagued the end of the set with hyper-melodious anthems like "It's Quite Alright."
Although, Lars and Tim tossed lead vocals back and forth, I might have been the only fan to be elated to hear bassist Matt Freeman sing more than a couple songs. All I wanted was to hear them play the Freeman-penned-and-sung "Black Derby Jacket," and sure enough when Lars introduced the song I did my best Beatlemania-obsessed, teenage-girl impression. Freeman is the unsung hero of Rancid. Not only are his busy runs on the bass essential to the band, but the few songs he's contributed are among my favorites, like "Black Derby Jacket." I never really knew what he looked like but I am amazed that such a gruff voice can come out of such a down-to-earth-looking dude. Freeman seemed to offer a bit of comic relief -- he whipped out a switchblade comb to slick back his already straightened black hair before taking over lead vocals on songs like "Black and Blue," "Gunshot" and "Rejected." His bass lines were bouncing all over throughout the night, albeit a little too low in the mix (thanks, Lars!).
I generally go for Armstrong or Freeman's songs before Fredriksen's, but his larynx-lashing scream was spot on as he ravaged through "Dead Bodies," "St. Mary" and "Bloodclot." It's too bad they didn't play more of the challenging material from their 1998 album "Life Won't Wait." But they did do a rendition of "Hooligans." Lars, also, did a dramatic solo version of "The War's End." Tim countered with "East Bay Night." Naturally, Tim won the audience over with his hometown ode. He's also got to be one of the weirdest guitar players ever. You wouldn't be out of line to assume that he's learning to play the guitar left-handed for the first time every time he strums a chord. But, somehow, he rips out surf and Chuck Berry-style riffs that are yet distinctly his own.
Armstrong ended the night with another ska-damaged Guthrie-esque tune, "Fall Back Down," before returning for a three-song encore of, you guessed it, "Time Bomb," "Tenderloin" and "Ruby Soho."