Hours before their concert Tuesday at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Green Day huddled in a nondescript corner away from the stage, sneering like the three East Bay groms they once were. It was for a set streamed live on Facebook, filled with early rarities and serving as a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“We haven’t played in a room this small since the Longview bathroom,” said bassist Mike Dirnt.
They may as well never again. Long gone are the days when a garage could contain the pop-punk icons, who in three decades have evolved into Grammy-winning, Broadway musical-writing, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers with stadiums to fill and a planet to save. And in their mid-40s, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool and Dirnt still get as bananas as big bands get.
For more than two and a half hours in Tampa, Green Day pulled tricks from every page in the rock star playbook, often more than once, overwhelming the synapses of 13,000 fans with a performance that proved how thoroughly they’ve transcended their black-box roots, and why they deserve their legacy as one of their generation’s biggest bands.
Green Day have been coming to Tampa for nearly 30 years, as Armstrong noted during an early performance of Boulevard of Broken Dreams: “This goes out to everybody that was at the Star Club back in 1990 or so,” he said.
Intense and raccoon-eyed, with a little aging growl mixed into his faux-British sneer, Armstrong still sounds as good as ever, and hasn’t lost much pep from his step, marching in double-time and leaping around the stage like a hobbit hopped up on Pixy Stix. Drawing, perhaps, from his Broadway training for American Idiot, he often struck exaggerated, operatic poses, playing much bigger than his compact, sprightly frame. Armstrong was matched leap for leap (and then some) by the sinewy, athletic Dirnt, who flexed, pogoed and executed the odd flying split-kick. Even Cool descended from his drum kit once or twice to race around center stage for a minute.
Some of Green Day’s old songs still have razor-sharp teeth, such as Dookie’s bass-snapping Longview and frenetic Welcome to Paradise. But nearly every Green Day album has at least one classic that still sounds fresh, including the pedal-pushing punk screed Bang Bang, from last year’s Revolution Radio, one of many songs backdropped by fire, sparks and explosions.
The addition of three backing musicians gave Green Day lots of extra leg room to flesh out their sound. Anthemic singles like Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Still Breathing and Forever Now felt bigger, deeper, rangier, inspiring lighters in the air all the way up to the lawn. They wove an accordion and harmonica into a slightly Americana-tinged Minority; and staged a kazoo-vs.-saxophone toot-off on King for a Day, with the saxman tossing in a few bars of George Michael’s Careless Whisper.
Then there were the songs from American Idiot, the 2004 political rock opera that positioned Green Day as a Band With Things to Say. Some of its statements still rang uncomfortably true in 2017, like Holiday (“I beg to differ from the hollow lies...”) and the searing title track (“I’m not a part of a redneck agenda; now everybody, do the propaganda...”).
While Armstrong tried to convince the crowd that the night should be fun and free of politics — “This is not a political party, man! This is a celebration!” — he minced no words about trying to make America a more communal and inclusive place.
“I’m so sick of looking at all this racist f---ing bulls--- these days,” he said. “F---ing Nazis. Hell, no. You lose your freedom of speech as soon as you say you’re a f---ing Nazi. Because at that point, the talking, the dialogue, is over. And I’m going to punch you in the f---ing face.”
But the mood of the night was to be kept light — this is a celebration, remember? — and so three separate times, Armstrong pulled a kid up on stage to live out their rock-star dreams, greeting them with a generous hug and the palpable joy of a parent. On frenetic opener Know Your Enemy, he pulled up a slightly terrified-looking girl who sang a few tentative bars and then, at Armstrong’s urging, overcame her trepidation and took a flying leap from the stage to the pit. For Longview, he brought a 14-year-old boy up to sing about masturbation and take another stage dive. And then, for a cover of Operation Ivy’s Knowledge, he pulled a 10-year-old up to play guitar. After a quick on-stage chord lesson, Armstrong life-coached the boy into a couple of flying leaps to punctuate the song; by the end, all 13,000 fans were chanting his name.
And THEN Green Day immediately went into Basket Case.
It was like that all night, a set of maximalist heart and constantly cresting emotion that called to mind so many of Green Day’s arena-rock contemporaries — U2, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, Kings of Leon. It’s easy to be cynical about such populist appeal, but in the case of Green Day, the act felt as genuine as the perspiration soaking Armstrong's jet-black 'do. There was real camaraderie, especially, between Armstrong and Dirnt, who dropped to their knees to play each other’s instruments with big smiles on their faces. Armstrong slid through Dirnt’s wide-stretched legs at one point; at another, Dirnt gave him a peck on the cheek. Aww!
Green Day may never again play a smaller stage than the one that housed their Harvey fundraiser in Tampa. But for them these days, the size of the stage doesn’t matter. Big or small, Green Day will find a way to fill it.
-- Jay Cridlin