Towards the beginning of a triumphant South By Southwest show at Austin’s Moody Theatre, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, yelled at the ravenous crowd: “Welcome back!” The room — full of couldn’t-be-bothered industry types and lottery winners and excitable superfans — went nuts.
That’s because Armstrong recently re-emerged after a very public breakdown that forced him into rehab, with all its attendant issues. The venerable punk-pop trio (here extended at times to a six-piece) had to halt the promotional machine behind one of its most ambitious projects ever, a threesome of records (, , ). The releases mostly fell on deaf ears — none of them yielded a huge radio hit, clearly unusual for one of the most dependable, war-horse bands in the alt-rock sphere.
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So if the three band members (Mike Dirnt on bass and Tre Cool on drums) came off on Friday night like they had something to prove — well, they did. The show was book-ended with songs from (the blast-off “99 Revolutions” to start, and “Brutal Love,” a 50s-style banger at the end of the encore), and in between they hit all the high notes. We’re talking call-and-response whoa-oohs (and ooh-ay-ohs), out-there covers (Armstrong teased the lick to “Highway to Hell” in what appeared to be an unrehearsed moment — until the entire band kicked it in), crowd-surfing fans invited on stage to sing along with the band, and, most importantly, a run-through of the band’s history, with mega-hits like “American Idiot” falling squarely on the set list in between more obscure songs dating back to their early years as scruffy kids in NorCal (“Christie Road,” one of those tunes, chugged and tugged and roared.)
Interestingly, though, the band never acknowledged where they were playing — sure, there was lots of “How ya, doing Austin?” but no mention of SXSW itself. It’s a tricky balancing act, especially when, like Green Day, you’re one of the biggest bands in the world, playing a convention known historically for breaking young up-and-comers.
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In a similar scenario at the same theater last year, Bruce Springsteen acknowledged the mayhem of a thousand bands playing at once just outside the theater. But for the guys in Green Day, this show — and their upcoming arena tour — is about proving themselves.
To that end, although they’ve sold tens of millions of albums, Armstrong has somehow become a come-from-behind underdog. Eyeing the upper rafters confidently at show’s end, it fits him well.