All words: Robert Winship
All photos: Mike Danko
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge that the odds are stacked against this show from the beginning and no amount of want is going to revive the lifeless HR who has turned Bad Brains into the Magic 8-ball that drifts to “Don’t count on it”, where DC is nonetheless compelled to shake it in the hopes that this fate will be undone. We can’t be that convinced that Bad Brains canon is anything surprising, given the heavy dub-influences of I Against I. It’s strange to think of any old-school punk band channeling the violence and authority-challenging of their youth. But for Bad Brains, THE historical black band from a black city that lead one of the most deeply rooted movements of white youth, it was not the uneven reggae tone that hurts a show, it’s HR, who proved to be an outright embarrassment to his own music, whatever the style.
There was a little context that made this a night to be a part of in its carnival breakdown of oddity, beginning with the fact that the beautifully restored Howard Theater was seemingly invaded by a mix of old white dudes with dreadlocks and a younger class of late generation hardcore fans. The scene alone was bizarre enough to potentially hold Bad Brains in a positive light, trotting trough the smoke of 30-40 grimy proto-punks onto a red carpet where I was asked if I was ‘on the list’ by handsomely dressed men in three piece suits. Before anything began, the stage was walled off by a thick velvet curtain. For a little while it just a big social hour, like a CBGBs Reunion Party.
The highlight was the GZA, who, though noticeably out of place with the punks, spit clear and classic, from Wu-Tang standards “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Older Gods” through the finest Liquid Swords era tracks “Living in the World Today” and “Cold World”. His set was designed for a constant call-and-response, which rarely garnered the energy that GZA intended, but he made it clear he wasn’t there for his spotlight. “You know, the Wu-Tang Clan has been to DC at least 4 times this year, so this is just practice…Believe that !” The crowd didn’t have the knowledge to follow all his rhymes, so the older god came down to them proclaiming, “I wanna fuck with ya energy” crawling down to the pit to rap amongst the legion. His swagger was not always present, or frankly, necessary when his chops were fresh and his
wit was on point. He played to the photographers and gave the few fans, the Wu-Tang they deserve. After all, the Wu-Tang Clan is an institution, carried on by the work of the surviving original crew and a few hundred associates and it’s still a living, breathing and respectable outfit, especially for the GZA who still holds a place on top of the game.
The curtain dropped again and the theater filled out completely before Bad Brains’ set. I can’t spend too much time berating Bad Brains, as it was really only HR who should go. Dr. Know tore up every note and solo like it was 1982, the same of goes for Earl Hudson who was furious on each fill and Darryl Jenifer beating his bass into submission. Every musical element playing a vicious part, while HR just stood there, hands folded like a stoned Jedi, mumbling pseudo-spiritual nonsense and whatever was left over from his most recent joint. By the time they got to the second song, “Banned in DC”, the same sinking feeling was already noticeable on the faces next to me. Make no mistake; everyone who was there was hanging on to the same hope. There were a fair share of pits that opened to devoted slam-dancers and chest-beaters, but the lulls between for Jah-inspired reggae were just as frequent. The best hope and memory of their set was “Re-Ignition” which threatened to save the show and brought the most energy from the whole band. Unfortunately, I’m left with a feeling of how depressing it was to see one bad element undo the whole outfit–how one violent catalyst has become a burnout to his own cause.
There was no encore. Despite the honest, though misguided desires of at least the front half of the pit chanting for a return to the stage, the curtain dropped awkwardly and the crowd dispersed lazily. I hustled to the exit, past the merch table displaying 10 incarnations of Bad Brains the t-shirt/the album and straight to the pile of overpriced Wu Tang shirts, dropping $20 for shitty screen print…on principle.