It’s a rare night at the Fillmore when the normally groovy dance floor becomes a raging mosh pit. That’s because Pittsburgh punk rockers Anti-Flag are in town. But while the band brings an intense sound and provocative lyrics, they also bring a communal vibe of peace and understanding that fits right in here at rock’s most hallowed hall.
The Street Dogs from Boston get the crowd warmed up with some high-voltage tunes that set the tone for Anti-Flag’s signature brand of thinking man’s punk. Vocalist Mike McColgan was a soldier in the first Gulf War, so he speaks from experience when he proclaims that “war is not the answer.” The Street Dogs’ backdrop features an appropriately blindfolded eagle with a bomb in one talon and a moneybag in the other, displaying the band’s sentiments towards America’s ongoing global conflicts. Some pop harmonies and acoustic guitar are thrown into the mix, providing a more diverse sound than standard punk formula.
The crowd is now amped for the headliners, who’ve come to town on the heels of their just released new album, The Bright Lights of America, which sparkles from start to finish. “War sucks, let’s party!” proclaims bassist Chris #2, as the band opens with “Spit in the Face”, featuring a refrain of “the nation is dead, long live the new nation!” The bassist dives into the crowd mid-song and gets passed around while a roadie takes over on bass. The title track (and lead single) of Bright Lights is played early and rocks hard, exemplifying the new album’s arena-ready sound. Guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane’s big chords and anthemic vocals soar, while the sticker on his guitar provides food for thought, reading, “What are we going to do about the USA?”
“San Francisco, how many of you are tired of this illegal bullshit war?” asks Chris #2, receiving a rousing affirmative response before the band launches into another raucous anti-war tune. Later, the new and rip-rocking “Good and Ready” continues to demonstrate the band’s evolving sound. Like many of the songs on the new album, it has deeper dynamics than traditional punk, and you can actually hear the lyrics. This is key for a band that has as much to say as Anti-Flag.
“Our worst enemy is our own apathy,” Chris #2 later declares before launching into an older tune that gets the circle pit raging once again. Another song “about the end of the world” sends the circle pit into a frenzy as the Fillmore’s entire floor shakes like an earthquake. “The Project for a New American Century” decries “neo-con, neo-fascist blueprint USA hegemony,” a politically savvy sentiment that clearly sets Anti-Flag apart from most of their contemporaries. Chris #2 screams “fuck police brutality!” with a blood-curdling intensity when introducing the song of the same name, which moves the energy higher still, with the crowd stomping and clapping as the whole room shakes. Throughout the night the bassist demonstrates that he is without doubt one of the most intense characters in popular music today.
Guitarist Chris Head and drummer Pat Thetic perform admirably as well, but it’s guitarist Justin Sane who consistently propels Anti-Flag’s music to a higher level with his crisp vocals that combine singalong hooks with socially conscious sentiments, a fine line that he walks with great skill. Toward the end of the show, Sane praises San Francisco for its protest movements, saying it gives him hope for America. The sentiment leads into another standout track from the new album, “The Modern Rome Burning”.
The studio cut is prefaced with a monologue from famed political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, where he notes that “America is the prison house of nations.” Jamal’s sound-bite points out that America hosts 23 percent of the world’s incarcerated in a country with a mere five percent of the world’s total population—“not since Rome have we seen such a fever for imprisonment.” The track is a barnburner in a live setting, as the circle pit rages once again. When Sane sings “there ain’t no fucking SOS that’s gonna save our sinking ship,” there’s a feeling of catharsis rather than cynicism. It’s a feeling that comes from knowing the whole planet hasn’t gone crazy when there are still a few bands in rock ‘n’ roll willing to call it like they see it.
Anti-Flag ups the punk ante by eschewing nihilistic anarchy for a vibe that dares to dream of a more idealistic and utopian society, not unlike like the hippie jambands the Fillmore is more frequently known for hosting. The encore features banners proclaiming “287 Days”, with Chris #2 revealing that there’s “only 287 more days of that motherfucker,” referring of course to the remaining term of America’s current head of state. The band launches into “This is the End (for You My Friend)”, featuring one of the night’s heaviest grooves and catchiest hooks, with heads banging and the floor shaking again.
The one-two closing punch of “Die for Your Government>Power to the Peaceful” puts an appropriate stamp on the night with another raging anti-war screed followed by a call to arms for non-violent revolution. Sane rips off a wicked guitar solo on the latter, demonstrating that he’s been holding back all night and leading one to imagine what kind of fireworks could take place if punk bands cared to jam more. It’s not one of the longer sets seen at the Fillmore this year, but it’s certainly one of the most intense and most political.
If Green Day’s American Idiot is generally considered the punk rock album of the decade, Anti-Flag’s The Bright Lights of America could be a strong contender for runner-up. But while the songs are clearly radio-ready (local alt-rock station Live 105 has been blaring the title track all week), one has to doubt whether even a major label like RCA Records can push the band’s anti-establishment sentiments across the national airwaves at a time when the mainstream media has been co-opted by the corporate interests of the war machine. The answer is probably negative, but give Anti-Flag mad credit for trying.