January is not generally known as a big month on the music touring calendar. But Pittsburgh punk rockers Anti-Flag are known for their idealism, so it’s no surprise to see them hitting the road for a timely tour under the banner of “The Economy Sucks, Let’s Party!” With the country mired in the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression, there’s plenty of angst to tap into and a good sized crowd has turned out on this Wednesday evening. Red 7, just off of Red River Road in Austin’s downtown music district, is carving out a name as the premier punk/hardcore venue in town, so it’s a perfect match. The weather is nice too, bringing the outdoor stage into effect.
Anti-Flag often bring along an altruistic organization or two for tabling at their shows and here it’s Peta2, the animal rights group that takes on anyone who abuses animals, who are taking names on a petition against animal abuse. Some people think of punk rock as a genre based around anarchistic nihilism, but Anti-Flag flip that formula with some of the most socially conscious and politically savvy lyrics in modern music, making them arguably the most compelling punk band on the planet right now.
But as soon as the band hits the stage, just after 10 p.m., it becomes clear they that they face an extra challenge this evening. Bassist/vocalist Chris #2 is center stage instead of his usual stage left position, where he acknowledges that guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane is absent due to a tragic death of a nephew. Playing without a key member is a task many bands would be unable to rise to. But Anti-Flag’s guitar tech has been enlisted on the six-string and Chris #2 assumes full vocal duties (whereas he usually sings only half of the tunes).
The “Press Corpse” opener from the band’s superb 2006 album For Blood and Empire demonstrates that little energy will be lost, what with Chris #2 bringing his usually intense rage against the “corporatocracy” to the proceedings. Sporting what seems an unusually normal haircut, he looks a bit like comedian Jimmy Fallon but he still rages with reckless abandon on the tune about how toothless the lapdog American media has become in the 21st century. Guitarist Chris Head and drummer Pat Thetic are ready to rock as well and the set kicks off with a bang.
After the song, Chris #2 says “Positive change never comes from presidents or a CIA head’s son.” He notes how the band had been watching Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier in the evening, where the President said the US would start bringing troops out of Afghanistan by the summer of 2011.
“We’ll be holding him to that… but whether we support Obama or not, we support peace,” says Chris #2. The band launches into “Turncoat”, a tune originally aimed at George W. Bush, but one which remains highly relevant at a time when many are beginning to question the way the Obama administration seems to be continuing right along with the Bush regime’s warring ways. “Turncoat! Killer! Liar! Thief! Criminal with protection of the law,” sings the crowd right along with the bassist, as a mosh pit begins to form up front. The tune mixes the punk ethic with a hooky power pop vibe for one of the band’s catchiest songs.
Ever the keen follower of current events, Chris #2 also laments the recent passing of historian Howard Zinn, saying that the band had reached out to him to write some liner notes for them, to which he complied. The band launches into “Underground Network”, beginning with a “1-2-3-4 fuck you” to the corporate media and a “Stand up and fight” call for alternative media, which Zinn’s classic book A People’s History of America epitomizes.
Chris #2 is at his most intense during “Fuck Police Brutality”, where sledgehammer rhythms drive the mosh pit into a frenzy as the band delivers one of their heaviest classics. The set’s energy is peaking now as the band steams into “This is the End (For You My Friend)”. With its catchy riffs and anthemic vocals that decry society’s superficial paradigm of war and greed, it’s one of the band’s most infectious songs. The hardcore punk fans actually back off a little as the mosh pit dissolves, but those who appreciate the rock sensibilities that set Anti-Flag apart from standard three-chord punk move up and pump fists in the air as the energy continues to flow for one of the set’s top highlights.
“Smartest Bomb” from 2008’s vastly underrated Bright Lights of America is another highlight, with more rock riffage blended with punk intensity and some of the band’s cleverest anti-war lyrics. Two audience members are even brought up on stage to rock out on cowbell, furthering the festive vibe that’s been building throughout the show. The set comes to a scintillating conclusion with “Die for Your Government”, which brings the entire crowd alive for yet another peak moment. Chris #2’s heavy low-end gets the crowd bumping, while the big chords rock with arena-level power. The crowd sings out each chorus with a cathartic intensity – “You’re gonna die, gonna die, gonna die for your government!” Even the most cynical members of the audience can’t help but smile in appreciation during this anti-war classic.
The encore is a triple-shot of punk classics, beginning with a hard-hitting take on The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”, moving into a high-energy “I Fought the Law” and then going back to The Clash for a rousing rendition of “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. The latter features drummer Pat Thetic and his kit set up down in the pit in front of the stage, with the crowd gathered around him for the ever-classic lamentation over fickle lovers. It seems clear that many in the crowd can relate. Afterward, Mr. Thetic shakes hands, bumps fists and exchanges high-fives with numerous fans, demonstrating once again that Anti-Flag is most definitely a band for and of the people.