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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Bouncing with Rancid

The '90s punk stalwarts break out some old favorites to kick off a six-night stand at the Fonda.

October 02, 2008|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

The punk revivalists in Rancid might look like the Sex Pistols and sound like the Clash, but live, the quartet has more in common with a rap crew. Singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong has a raspy cadence as instantly recognizable as Snoop Dogg's, and the group's lyrics brim with mournful first-person tales of violent street life and ride-'til-we-die paeans to friendship.

That visceral street sensibility might be what kept them from the stadium-sized heights of their Bay Area contemporaries in Green Day, even when Rancid was actively courting such. But the opening night of the band's six-night stand at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood on Tuesday proved that though Rancid is in some ways orthodox in its '77-era zeitgeist, it's one of the only bands from the mid-'90s punk-pop wave that understood how the genre was a framework in which any number of influences could thrive.

Although Rancid has a new and much-anticipated album out soon on Armstrong's own Hellcat Records, its hour-and-a-half set was largely culled from the '90s albums that made its reputation. But instead of a cynical rehash, the many cuts from its 1995 breakout ". . . And Out Come the Wolves" and the warmly reggae-influenced "Life Won't Wait" were reminders of how canonical the band is to alt-leaning kids too young to have "gotten" Nirvana in its prime.

Movers and shakers like the Who-inspired "Bloodclot" and the leering "I Wanna Riot" drew the first legitimate circle pits this reviewer has ever seen at the Fonda. The latter inspired a gang chant of its best snide lyric: "Because I'm the kid who's got a lot of problems / If I throw a brick maybe the brick will go and solve them."

If it felt odd to hear that from Armstrong, a scene elder statesman with a huge pop-producer Rolodex and a recent solo album of easygoing dance-hall, the melancholy of "Ruby Soho" and "Journey to the End of the East Bay" proved that Rancid long had pangs of sadness about the gutter-punk life as well.

"Time Bomb," the band's biggest hit and final encore Tuesday night, was the best example -- a noirish, Specials-fetishizing tale of a young drug dealer copping high street fashion to hide the abuse that's left him "strong enough to die." It's a sentiment that Tupac and Biggie would have known well.

The band's worst album was its angriest and most uniformly straightforward, 2000's "Rancid," and the quartet wisely stuck to that record's few poppier moments in its set. But the most unexpected and well-received turn of the night was a cover of "Knowledge," a song from Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman's teenage ska-punk band Operation Ivy, whose self-titled retrospective still sells well despite the band's breakup in 1989.

The cover underscored how welcome a reunion tour from that band, whose songs excoriated religion and capitalism while calling for cultural reconciliation, would be in this political climate.

Despite all the anarchist visual signifiers, Rancid's never been much of an overtly political band, and songs like "The 11th Hour" were tinged not with calls to break the windows of banks but a kind of adult realization that rebellion is, in much of today's America, largely confined to one's own neighborhood and convictions. In introducing the song, guitarist Lars Frederiksen said, "Do you know where the power lies? The power lies in punk music, and in standing up for yourself and being an individual."

Rancid knows that if the personal is political, the reverse is true as well, and that's what makes them sound vital every year that punk "breaks" yet again.

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august.brown@latimes.com

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