[23 March 2011]
Ah, the live album. As the major-label record industry continues to wither, the idea of the live album as a stopgap commercial product to tide over fans between studio albums still lingers. Which isn’t to say all live albums are cynical releases intended as money-grabs. There are plenty of good-to-great live performance documents out there. And plenty of good reasons to put out live albums that don’t fall under the “it’s gonna be a while until our next real album comes out, so we’re throwing you a bone” mentality. But Green Day’s Awesome as F**k has a bit of the odor of a record-company stopgap about it. It’s been about two years since 21st Century Breakdown came out, with no news that the band has even thought about heading back into the studio or started writing material for a new album yet. Considering the five-year break between American Idiot and Breakdown, this isn’t really surprising.
So here comes Awesome as F**k in the interim. To Green Day’s credit, they are at least trying to do something different for this, their second live release. 2005’s Bullet in a Bible was a CD/DVD affair that captured 14 songs drawn from a 2-night stand in a huge amphitheater setting in England. This new album is also a CD/DVD combo pack, but the two discs are significantly different. The album features 17 tracks, each taken from a different concert, while the DVD contains a single show filmed in Saitama, Japan. While 11 of the songs are common to both discs, only “Geek Stink Breath” is the same performance on both the CD and DVD. But since Reprise didn’t see fit to send out the DVD for review, the rest of this write-up will focus on the CD portion of the release.
The first thing that jumps out about Awesome as F**k is the track listing. Among the expected songs from 21st Century Breakdown and American Idiot are some of the band’s lesser singles and even some deep album tracks. Since the focus here is largely on songs that didn’t show up on Bullet in a Bible, we get “When I Come Around”, “She”, and “Geek Stink Breath”. Of course, it can’t be entirely fresh, so “American Idiot”, “Holiday”, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, and “Good Riddance” all make their second live appearances here.
The album opens with a run of songs from 21st Century Breakdown. With dozens of shows to choose from, the band selected excellent performances of songs like “21st Century Breakdown”, “Know Your Enemy”, and “East Jesus Knowhere”. Billie Joe Armstrong is in fine voice on each track, singing passionately and occasionally exhorting the crowd to sing along with variations on “GO!!” and “Let’s Go!!!!!” And sing they do, as Armstrong cheers them on. Still, since most of these shows were in large arena settings, the audience singalongs are universally far-away sounding, regardless of how loud the crowd actually was in the venue. That sound just doesn’t travel well in huge arenas to recording equipment meant for a stage.
Once the album gets through “Gloria” (track 5), the treats for longtime fans really start to come out. The middle of the disc features the previously unreleased song “Cigarettes and Valentines” and Dookie‘s opener “Burnout”. Then there’s “Going to Pasalaqua”, a gem from the band’s very first album 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, followed by the excellent B-side “J.A.R.”, and Kerplunk standout “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” It’s this quintet of songs that really sets Awesome as F**k apart and gives it a kick as a live set.
Song selection aside, though, capturing the energy of Green Day’s live show is difficult via audio-only. The band’s studio albums have always been crisp and high-energy, so hearing them play live isn’t all that different from hearing them in the studio. The songs are generally the same beyond Armstrong telling the crowd to sing this part or that. “She” is stretched out for Billie Joe to lead the crowd in repeat-after-me “Heeey-O!” chants, something he does incessantly during the band’s concerts. It’s actually a smart move on their part to confine it to a single song here. “American Idiot” features an extended guitar solo that starts off really nicely but gradually descends into noise as Armstrong runs out of ideas. An improviser he is not. If you listen closely, you can hear the bangs of the flashpots exploding on certain tracks, but hearing a flashpot pop at the same volume level as a cymbal crash doesn’t really replicate the concert experience.
Awesome as F**k makes a strong attempt to provide some variety to the songs of a Green Day live show, but it’s not an essential album by any means. I’m sure the DVD portion of the release will provide a much better overview of what the band’s 21st Century Breakdown tour was like, but even that’s of questionable value in the long run. Green Day puts on a big, arena-sized rock show that’s part visual spectacle, part sing-along revival concert, with Billie Joe as the preacher and ringleader. It’s a wonderful experience in person, but it understandably loses something in the translation to CD and DVD. Which is really why this album ends up feeling like a stopgap release after all.