OFF! is not a sentimental band, but the group is capable of moments of oddly touching sentimentality. Last night the crew of hardcore revivalists took the stage at the Bowery Ballroom with a sense of history and a sense of purpose. I’ve seen OFF! a handful of times and each time, without fail, frontman Keith Morris, former singer/screamer of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, will introduce each member of the band individually while also citing the long list of acts the musicians were a part of. There’s guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides). There’s bassist Steven McDonald (Redd Kross). There’s drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket From The Crypt, Earthless). And then there’s Morris, punk legend and maybe the only white dude left on the planet who can pull off dreadlocks. Morris’s opening salvo never feels like an act of grandstanding or cred-building; instead, it’s a way to acknowledge that yes, OFF! is part of an ongoing tradition, a lineage, but that was then. This is now.
OFF’s emphasis on the present over the past could be seen in the significantly younger choice of an opener: Brooklyn hardcore act Cerebral Ballzy. Taking the stage after 10, the group was a study in simplicity and stupidity. Lead singer Honor Titus has definitely taken some sort of Audience Antagonization 101 class at the local punk community college because he came armed with all the easiest tricks to piss people off: beer pouring, saliva spitting, word slurring, near-constant middle finger giving, almost-as-constant “Fuck you!” saying and, my personal favorite, redundant song explaining. Here’s a not-so-brief list of the introductions Titus gave to the audience before each song: “This song is about skateboarding.” “This song is about beer.” “This song is about not going to school.” “This song is about girls.” “This song is about causing trouble.” “This song is about not having money for the train.” “This song is about eating fast food and dying.” “This song is about skateboarding, pizza, hanging out with your friends, titties and…” The band started playing before he could finish that last one; I guess it will have to remain a mystery.
The music surrounding Titus’s petulant but ultimately good-natured trolling was fairly typical hardcore that rarely deviated from past glories. Songs exploded to life with the rollicking playing of the often shirtless drummer, and the guitarist provided screeching, hammering guitar lines that often flirted with thrash and more noise-based influences. Though the front section of the crowd responded accordingly, turning the floor into a pile of flailing limbs and banging heads, some sections of the audience obviously found the band’s intensity less fun and more irritating. Cerebral Ballzy has all the subtly of a firecracker lodged in a toilet, but I think they’d take that as a compliment.
OFF! was up next, taking the stage past 11. Though the group is currently touring behind its excellent self-titled debut, the setlist drew heavily on the First Four EPs collection, with songs like the alienation-anthem “I Don’t Belong” quickly turning young and old members of the crowd into elbow-throwing, stage-diving and fist-pumping warriors. At one point a stage-jumper left something behind on the stage and between songs Morris picked it up. “Somebody lost their safety pin,” he observed. “Weren’t these made for diapers? Some of us are close to the Depends age.”
It was a brief moment, but it encapsulates Morris’s endearing appeal: genuine concern for others cut with self-deprecation and self-doubt. He is the rare artist who is just as compelling and funny when he’s speaking as he is when he’s screaming and jumping around the stage. His short rants and mini-narratives can turn a brutal, churning song like “Jeffery Lee Pierce” into a moving, poignant eulogy. Morris retains a boyish mischievous quality, but it’s coupled with a weariness and a sense of loss. When someone in the crowd throws a beer at him early in the show, he gently chides the audience by saying beer is meant for drinking, not tossing at bands. While it’s tempting to dismiss the other members of the band as highly skilled mercenaries at the service of Morris’s sputtering id, they play a vital role: They keep Morris tethered. McDonald’s head-banging enthusiasm, Rubalcaba’s focused precision and Coats’ unrelenting intensity all work together to create a thunderous, whirlwind for Morris to rage against. And rage he did.