Billie Joe Armstrong is such a goddamned mesmeric Pied Piper of power punk, he can convince 20,000 New Yorkers not only to caterwaul like fucking British soccer hooligans on demand, but that doing so counts as some sort of important, undistilled , edgy-like-a-banshee wake-up call to the vast and vague forces out there souring his worldview — which, according to the show Green Day put on at Madison Square Garden Monday night, include CNN, “Hollywood bullshit,” douches who hate Green Day and (wtf?) large, brown bottles labeled “XXX.” Like in old Looney Tunes reels.
Likewise, the herky-jerky power strides produced by Armstrong’s stunted frame as he claimed every inch of the stage, if not the stadium, bore the cartoonish, disjointed cadence of people in silent movies. His performance persona is impish, iddish, infantilized, antiseptically angry, infectious and irresistible. He is what you get when you look up “frontman” in the dictionary, and in case you forget, he’s about to command you to “Get those hands up in the air!” sometime in the next minute. Resistance is futile. The guy’s too much fun for anybody to not have any.
Yay to Green Day for transmuting the sweaty intimacy of every hardcore basement show into an all-ages, arena-suitable spectacle. Twenty-plus years old and eight albums in — the current, worldwide tour supports their latest, 21st Century Breakdown — the trio of Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool seemed spring-loaded with we’re-just-getting-started energy throughout its marathon set. (Two hours and a half! Like, two dozen songs!) To paraphrase the group’s cutest ballad (played as an acoustic encore, natch) they’re having the time of their life. The cynical flipside is that when you take the band out of the basement, you take some of the basement out of the band, and when you put said band in an arena, what you get resembles arena rock an awful lot.
Considering Green Day’s entire repertoire is borne out of irony and self-consciousness, it’s only natural to snort when Armstrong screeches a mega-rock cliche like “New Yawwwwwwwkkkkkk Cit-ayyyy!” not once but three or four times during the opening number alone. A sluggish start, “Song of the Century” followed by “21st Century Breakdown”, gave way to the bright, swishy single “Know Your Enemy”. It all led into Billie Joe & Co.’s message-heavy ham-thrashing. And with Green Day, the message is the medium: Earnestly delivered empty platitudes, the group’s de facto lyrical trademark, were flung around MSG with as much velocity as the T-shirts that Armstrong at one point shot out of a T-shirt gun. (Because nothing pisses off the establishment like a stupid sporting-event time-filler?) “Do you know what we’re fighting for?” Armstrong screamed. Absent any pointed comments on gay marriage, health care reform, Republicanism, etc., his best suggestion: Eradicating the vapid dickbreaths who intake live concerts through the viewfinders of their cell phones and digicams. Which, to Armstrong’s credit, is truly fucking soulless.
Green Day’s been around long enough to just opt for a greatest-hits setlist and leave it at that, but the balance of Breakdown material and older stuff was well-mixed. “Before the Lobotomy”, a sweet but tepid track that dips a toe into Styx-like schmaltz — there’s that arena rock creeping in — served as a cool precursor for the sizzling “Holiday”, ripped out in double time. An acoustic rendering of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” led into the rowdy treat “2000 Light Years Away”, an old-school ditty off their 1992 indie-label album Kerplunk!. Somewhere after the halfway point, the concert morphed into a weirdly satisfying mash-up of hits, screwups and show tunes. After a kickass rendering of “Welcome to Paradise”, Armstrong didn’t even get through the first verse of “When I Come Around” before he’d forgotten the lyrics, said “Fuck it,” and let the crowd sing it for him. Which it did, dutifully and word for word, and could do for any song in an instant. (My big joke: What is this, a Billy Joel Armstrong show?) In fact, on multiple occasions (“Basket Case”, “Longview”) Armstrong yanked a lucky few kids out of the front rows to take over vocals; his obvious and generous affection towards them was truly refreshing. Green Day may wail about alienation, but in this room on this night, it was a share-the-lovefest.
Moving on: An inexplicable, fragmented medley of Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, Led Zep’s “Thank You” and GNR’s “Sweet Child O’Mine”; then the happily ridiculous klezmer-polka vibe of “King For A Day”, complete with Dirnt and Cool costumed in nonsensical dress-up; sliding into the Isley Brothers/Every Bar Mitzvah Ever classic “Shout” — and yeah, they did the whole little-bit-softer-now, sink-to-the-floor thing — The Penguins’ “Earth Angel”; the Broadway number “If My Friends Could See Me Now”; the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” Train-wrecky and eminently watchable.
The band (fortified here by two extra guitarists and a keyboardist, plus the occasional, Clarence Clemons-esque sax solo) wound down its set with a pair of saga-songs off 21st Century Breakdown, its second consecutive rock opera after American Idiot. The three-chapter tale of “American Eulogy”, with Armstrong repeatedly complaining “I don’t want to live in the modern world” was blown away by the near-endless, five-part “Jesus of Suburbia”, for which he scoured the crowd in search of someone to shoulder his rhythm guitar. After humorously weeding out a few fakes and chastising Generation Text for sending IMs instead of picking up an axe, he called upon a girl all of 20 years old — in a Misfits shirt! fuck yeah! — whose surprise performance was the joy of the night. “Jesus of Suburbia” — bombastically adolescent, cheesy, symphonic, unapologetic and hopeful — encapsulated all that was good and goofy about Green Day Monday night. Including the obvious fact that Billie Joe Armstrong really is the messiah of mall-friendly rock.