JELLO BIAFRA AND THE GUANTANAMO SCHOOL OF MEDICINE at Lee’s Palace, Wednesday, August 30. Rating: NNN
It's often a letdown to see aging punk rockers retake the stage decades after their prime. Punk is a genre that thrives on the urgency of youth; it rarely holds up to endless touring.
As one of the most overtly polemical, outspoken figures of ‘80s hardcore, former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra seemed like he might fall into that trap of bogus nostalgia as he took the stage at Lee's Palace with his current backing band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine. It's fair to assume that much of the primarily over 35-year-old crowd was there to hear Dead Kennedys classics, but political protest songs tend to deplete in vitriol when aimed at targets that faded in relevance around the time that Reagan left office.
Early in the set, Biafra dispelled some of that worry with a new version of the DK classic, California Über Alles, that updated lyrics about Jerry Brown with references to Arnold Schwarzenegger (ironically, the newer version is actually less accurate, as Brown has retaken the California Governor seat for the first time since 1983).
"Play something we know," yelled a fan with poor timing, sending Biafra on one of his trademark rants. "He wants us to spoon feed him retro," he replied, mocking the crowd. "I haven't forgotten what punk is all about: don't wallow in nostalgia, play something new. It's not like I've forgotten how to write."
Indeed, despite his entirely new backing band, many of the newer Guantanamo School of Medicine songs performed by Biafra sounded as straight out of the melodic punk playbook of the Dead Kennedys as the actual DK tunes: Nazi Punks Fuck Off, Kill The Poor and Holiday In Cambodia (the latter with guest vocals from Danko Jones). That's hardly a surprise; even at their catchiest, the songs always played a backing role to Biafra himself, his over-the-top flamboyance and anti-corporate sloganeering delivered with all the subtlety of a kick to the gut.
Biafra's approach hasn't changed, but his targets have. Armed with a whole new arsenal of attack subjects - slacktivism, the Tea Party, false austerity, new feudalism, privatized education, "Barackstar O'Bummer" and his opponent Mitt Romney alike - the newer songs updated the formula without diminishing his mugging, sarcastic presence.
As they launched into their penultimate song, Shock-U-Py, Biafra noted that though the names of the anti-corporate, anti-fascist movements change, it's important to continue to recharge and take action, to turn demonstration into celebration.
Even at age 54, punk rock is a powerful weapon.