“This is a really beautiful city”, Keith Morris remarked halfway his El Corazon set with super punk supergroup OFF!. He was talking to the punk kid who had fought his way to the very front of the crowd, sweating profusely through the leather jacket he dared not remove in the pit. “You don’t know that yet, though”, Morris continued, “you haven’t figured out how to find the good parts and... oh, well, you know, that stuff comes later”. Back behind the pit, you can hear some chuckles. They come from the denim vests and true vintage Circle Jerks t-shirts in the back, who have spent twice as many years at punk shows than their juniors up front. They know what Morris is talking about - with time, the virulent opposition to everything within a 50 mile radius of mainstream culture becomes more focused, and while the anger may continue to burn towards the deserving, you learn to appreciate the good for what it is.
For example, the good tonight was a maniacally intense set from OFF!, perhaps the most impactful and furious voice in the modern punk context. It helps that the face of the band is Morris, who has had more experience telling it like it is from the vantage point of a microphone and a pair of ripped Levi’s for longer than anyone on the scene. But together with equally legendary bassist Steven Shane McDonald (founding member of Redd Kross), devilishly good guitarist Dimitri Coats, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (a veteran of too many punk bands to count), they make for one hell of a performance, no matter how long you’ve been on the scene. The band is on tour in support of new LP Wasted Years with Brooklyn band Cerebral Ballzy and Santa Ana punks NASA Space Universe. Armed with an armada of vans and one totally kickass tour poster, the three left a crater where El Corazon used to be.
If you were hoping for a nice, easy energy buildup to the pinnacle of OFF!, you were in the wrong place Sunday night. NASA Space Universe singer Kevin Rhea jumped off stage and started the circle pit himself, microphone in hand, while his band played furious speed punk up on stage. The band has been making noise on the California punk scene since 2006, and last year, they released another EP of brutal, two minute throw-downs. Their recorded material is almost purposefully unlistenable, to entice you into witnessing the fullness of the band, which is their live show. The crowd loved it - pits continued throughout the brutal show and the thirty minute set gave plenty of time to get the blood pumping.
NASA Space Universe:
After their sizzling opening number, Honor Titus introduced his band with a giggle, like even after saying it a thousand times, the band’s name still makes for a laugh. Cerebral Ballzy were no joke, though — the band’s forty minute set of merciless east coast punk numbers, combined with Titus’s fantastic crowd interaction, made for a grand old time. The band released their self-titled debut back in 2011, with cover art by Raymond Pettibon who has done all of the OFF! covers, and with much hype from Adult Swim and others. This year, Cerebral Ballzy will release the follow up, produced by Dave Sitek! The impressive list of collaborators is deserved, though. The New York band have a great combination of 80s punk sound and presence that make an easy sell. Titus’s stage persona was great, listing off pizza, skateboarding, cutting class, and Brooklyn girls as pretty much all inspiration for tracks. If you question the extent to which skateboarding plays into things, they had a track called “Speed Wobble”. Altogether, a very fun performance and a great crowd hype before OFF! took the stage.
OFF! played 21 songs, the total studio time of which comes out to about 26 minutes. Stage dives from audience members continued throughout the show - if you were anywhere near the front row, you had to have your head on a swivel, because otherwise, you are going to wake up with a pretty serious concussion, and worse yet, have missed the rest of the show. The fact that most songs barely hit 90 seconds was almost a mercy act. Any longer, and the bursts of pit brutality would have been too much to handle. But after throwing elbows and kicking you in the face, you always get picked back up so that the beautiful chaos can continue.
If you managed to find a good spot to actually watch the show as opposed to watching out for your life, OFF! were merciless on stage. Dimitri Coats is up and down the neck board faster than you can mentally process, and all while head-banging literally the entire show. McDonald is as legendary a bass player as he’s always been, riffing out every line with pristine excellence. Then it’s up to Mario and Keith to keep the pace and keep the peace (or lack thereof). Keith’s scissor kick during “Hypnotized” still put him a solid foot above the kick drum and his banshee scream on “Darkness” is as visceral as it has ever been. The guy is not slowing down any time soon, and least of all at any point in tonight’s performance. Back and forth across the front row, Morris was in every face, screaming at other people screaming. It was a great bonding experience. Then when Dimitri crowd surfed during the “Panic Attack” guitar solo for the encore, crowd and band bonding reached new levels of nirvana.
Most of all, it was fantastic to see OFF! playing an OFF! show for OFF! fans and (especially Morris) being 100% content and present in the immediate moment. In the age of remasters and anniversary reunion tours and endless cash grabs for ancient money, Morris is still up on stage at El Corazon, screaming his head off and playing a truly unforgettable performance to fans young and old. Answering one heckler asking for an old Black Flag cut, Morris answered, “If you want to see Black Flag, go see Greg Ginn”. There was no spite in his voice, either - Morris was simply making a statement. OFF! is the present state of Keith Morris’s work, and writing songs with Dimitri and playing alongside Steven and Mario, it’s some of the best work he’s done yet. OFF! isn’t counting on any wasted years past to support them in the here and now. Besides, they are too busy torching the stage to look in the rearview.