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Live Review: Refused and OFF!, July 26, 2012, Congress Theater – Chicago, IL



Refused by Philip Cosores at Coachella

Reunion tours are fickle things. They can be memorable flashbacks to important parts of music history, or they can be cold-hearted cash grabs in cases when the bands lack integrity. They can be once-in-a-lifetime experiences for young fans that would otherwise never get to see the artists, or their “one time only” nature can make them easier to mar. With the ongoing rise in popularity of indie music, there’s been a glut of retired bands coming back for these reunion tours over the past few years. For the most part, this has turned out to be a good thing, as many of the bands that went overlooked their first time around are finally being given due recognition.

There were a few things wrong about Refused’s show at Congress Theatre though. Chief among them was the steep price of admission, disappointing for an act touted as being rebellious and working class. Also, there was the obvious contradiction of the band’s original, vehement statement that they would never reunite. Fortunately though, the things that were righteous about the show remained so. Among these was a pair of Keith Morris-featured Black Flag covers, and that the show itself managed to fall firmly into the all of the former, positive categories of reunion gigs.

The most important outside factor to take into account for this show had to be the venue, Congress Theatre. Physically, Congress Theatre is cavernous; formerly used as a movie palace, the main hall of the building has a capacity of about 4,000, with wide walls, high ceilings, and rough, sloped concrete floors. With so much space to reverberate off of, sound is bound to be less than ideal, and this held true for OFF!’s opening set. Not that it matters to a band like OFF! though. Despite the fact that frontman Keith Morris’ words between songs were largely indecipherable due to the way they’d echo around the building, when the band was playing, he was able to snarl his way through songs with an urgency that couldn’t be diminished by the poor sound.

On stage, OFF! is like a well-oiled machine, all parts of the band in constant motion but perfect sync; an exercise in controlled chaos. Each band member is worthy of attention. Morris alternates between expressions of outrage and paranoia while delivering his lyrics on-point. Dimitri Coats is an imposing presence on the left side of the stage, with his hands latched to his guitar but his feet free to kick in the air. Steven McDonald plays propulsive bass rhythms while his hair whipping all over the place. And at the center of it all is Mario Rubalcaba, whose constant and furious timekeeping allows no room for exaggerated, wound-up blows at his kit.

Those of us who have seen this before know the drill; OFF! would blow through four or five of their songs with barely any time to blink, and then, to draw out their set time, Keith Morris would talk to the audience for a few minutes. The subjects don’t vary much; it’s always either the origins of songs they were about to play, or statements about supporting the punk community and fighting the good fight, but Morris is a commanding enough figure to continually hold the crowd’s attention. To name highlights from OFF!’s opening set would be somewhat arbitrary, due to all the songs’ nature of being concise and rapid, but it’s fair to say that the crowd was most amped for the final trio of “Black Thoughts,” “Darkness,” and “Upside Down.”


Off! by Matt Draper at Burgerama

Refused, it should be noted, is not your typical, straightforward hardcore band. Ever the showmen, they made their grand entrance by hanging curtains in front of the stage that read “Refused” and came crashing down when they started to play. The press release for this reunion tour stated that its primary purpose was to give the songs from their magnum opus, The Shape Of Punk To Come: A Chimerical Bombination In 12 Bursts, a fair shake in the live setting because the band broke up soon after the album’s release. So it was to no one’s surprise that the following set drew heavily from this album.

Opening with “Worms Of The Senses/Faculties Of The Skull,” it also became clear from the get-go than Dennis Lyxzén was not your typical hardcore frontman. He’s tall, slender, and, like the other members of Refused, sharply dressed, which was in stark contrast to their jeans-wearing predecessors on stage, and made an enormous difference in terms of presence. His mannerisms are unusual for his genre as well; instead of outright aggression or brooding anger, two rough descriptors that could be used for a fair amount of hardcore frontmen, Lyxzén was very smooth in his movements, and tended to dance his way across most of the stage while his bandmates stayed put. It’s not the most intimidating approach, but as the show went on, his energy was more than enough to win the audience over. In fact, there were a few moments, such as when he walked on top of the crowd during “Refused Are Fucking Dead,” when Lyxzén’s persona became downright magnetic, and he was able to foster connections with the audience to a degree that’s rare for shows of this caliber.


Refused by Philip Cosores at Coachella

Because this was the last date where OFF! was opening for Refused, at one point in the set Keith Morris was brought out to help cover a couple of Black Flag classics. The first was “Police Story,” and while a Henry Rollins-fronted tune may have seemed an odd choice to play with Keith Morris, the second was “Nervous Breakdown,” from the Morris-fronted first Black Flag EP. Before starting, Lyxzén told the audience the almost perfunctory punk story of how he got into Black Flag when he was 15 years old, and upon having the chance to finally play Black Flag songs with an original member, he looked 15 again for just a few minutes.

But despite the special collaborative performance, this night was still all about Refused. Predictably, “Liberation Frequency” inspired the most singing along, and “New Noise” the most movement, but it wasn’t just the performances of these songs that brought them to high levels. It was the self-awareness that went along with them, lending an extra sense of purpose to the statements being made. Lyxzén made notice of his band’s strange position at various points over the course of the show, noting the various contradictions concerning Refused’s career. Most obvious was that the album that was the most effective distillation of Refused’s rebellious attitude (The Shape Of Punk To Come) was released on a major label (Epitaph). When that album came out, according to Lyxzén , living conditions in their native Sweden weren’t even that bad. He said that he wasn’t completely sure what they were trying to rebel against back in 1997, but when he looked back at the lyrics in 2012, he realized that they were more relevant now than ever.

And that was what gave this show more value than your typical reunion gig. From a distance, it’s easy to dismiss this tour as an opportunistic cash grab, especially considering the less than amicable way Refused first broke up. But by the time the show was over, it was clear that their passion for the music has remained intact, allowing Refused to put on a show that could justifiably be called “punk” despite its high price of admission and 4,000-capacity location. And that is no small feat.

Setlist:

Worms Of The Senses/Faculties Of The Skull
The Refused Party Program
Liberation Frequency
Rather Be Dead
Coup d’etat
Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine
The Deadly Rhythm
Hook, Line and Sinker
Police Story (Black Flag cover)
Nervous Breakdown (Black Flag cover)
Refused Are Fucking Dead
Life Support Addiction
The Shape Of Punk To Come

Encore:

New Noise
Tannhauser/Derive


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