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Concert Review: Green Day debuts "21st Century Breakdown" at the Fox Oakland

East Bay rock legends play their fanatically anticipated new album start to finish in surprise show.

Drummer Tre Cool and lead singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong rock the Fox Oakland.

Photo by Pete Crooks

Last night's Green Day show at the Fox Oakland was one of those "I was there" concert experiences. Before I review the show—which was epic—let me explain what I mean.

Two weeks ago, I went to see legendary singer-songwriter JJ Cale and sat next to a music promoter and photographer, a guy who took pictures of George Harrison's famous walk around Haight Ashbury back in 1967. This guy was full of great "I was there" concert stories. "I was there at Monterey, when Jimi lit his guitar on fire, man!" and "Altamont? Hell yeah, I was there—I was standing on the corner of &%^&ing stage when the Hell's Angel's were beatin' on that dude and Jagger was telling everyone to 'cool out'".

Green Day at the Fox was an "I was there," no doubt. Next month, the Oakland-based rockers will release 21st Century Breakdown, their first album of new material since 2004's megasmash American Idiot. (Not counting the killer side project they put out last summer under the name Foxboro Hot Tubs). To get their chops in shape for a massive world tour, the band announced a trio of surprise Bay Area shows—playing the tiny Indenpendent and DNA Lounge in San Francisco last week and the Fox Oakland last night. Tickets to the first two shows sold out almost instantly, and last night's Fox show took a few hours to sell out. Since Green Day's American Idiot show at AT&T Park in San Francisco sold the most single-show tickets in the history of that venue (more than the Stones or Springsteen), getting to see a band of this magnitude in venues this small is a huge treat for fans. It was a particular treat to see them at the elegantly restored Fox Oakland—a perfect fusion of the East Bay's biggest band at its most spectacular venue.

Of course, Green Day—lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool— got their start playing at the iconic Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman Street, so they are no stranger to intimate Bay Area venues. With their 1994 big label release, Dookie, they became world-famous rock stars. Many feel that the catchy tunes on that album—"Longview," "When I Come Around", "Basket Case", "She"—saved rock radio from the heavy, often depressing sounds of the Seattle grunge movement. the band released a series of successful and interesting albums over the next decade, but 2004's American Idiot raised the bar considerably. A rock opera reaction to the Bush-era was a psychic freakout, mixing riff-heavy rockers like "American Idiot" and "Holiday" with some downright tender ballads "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Wake Me When September Ends". The album also featured two groundbreakers, "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming," each containing multiple mini-songs packed into a nine-minute epics. American Idiot won tons of Grammys and sold 13 million copies worldwide. It's follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, has a tough act to follow.

So last night, Green Day performed the entire new album, start to finish. The new material is impressive and ambitious, and at times enormous, if sound can be measured in size. The album unfolds in three acts, beginning with "Heroes and Cons". The title track, "21st Century Breakdown", kicks off as a shimmering pop track about working class heroes, and its catchier than anything on U2's most recent release. The second song, "Know Your Enemy", is a call for revolution against conformity, the third, "Viva La Gloria" is a gorgeous ballad that might have the radio appeal that American Idiot's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me When September Ends" had. From there, things get a lot darker. "Before the Lobotomy" and "Christian's Inferno" dig at themes of self-destruction and despair with chainsaw buzzing guitar rips. Act 1's finale, "Last Night on Earth," is another gentle ballad, but darker. It's a love song filtered through a prism of apocalyptic fire. So maybe not a big radio hit there.

Act 2, "Charlatans and Saints" begins with "East Jesus Nowhere," a clever eff you to organized religion and the conformity that can come with it. "Peacemaker" is a massive rock tunethat sounds like it could be a long-lost Queen record. "Last of the American Girls" is one of the album's catchier tunes, about a girl who still plays vinyl records and wants to be happey despite the fact that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. "Murder City" and "Little Girls" are dark tales of self destruction and act 2's final tune, "Restless Heart Syndrome, " starts with " I've got a really bad disease, it's got me begging on my hands and knees", so we're not out of the woods yet. At this point I realized that 21st Century Breakdown may have an even bleaker point of view than American Idiot's. Which is kind of scary.

Act 3 kicks off with another raging rocker, "Horsehoes and Handgrenades" and leads into the "The Static Age". Giant gas masks with TV static in the eyes appeared on the video screens behind Armstrong, as he sang " I can't see a thing in the video, I can't hear a sound on the radio in stereo in the static age. I think the point ihe's making is that much of the information/noise churned out by the contemporary media is toxic. Next was "21 Guns", another Queen-esque regal rocker. The third act wraps up with the two part "American Eulogy" and the plaintive "See the Light". The band leaves the stage for an encore break.

Whew. Talk about sensory overload. After shooting pictures of the first two songs from the soundboard, I took a seat in the Fox's balcony and tried to absorb as much as I could. The energy and amplification made it impossible to hear every lyric, so I'm looking forward to getting the album when it comes out May 15 and playing it start to finish a few times. I got the sense that even the most hardcore fans had the same reaction, because the energy level of the hits-friendly encore was much, much higher than during the 21st Century Breakdown set. After a short break, Green Day (the original three members are joined by three session musicians to perform the complex arrangements of the newer material) came back out with the one-two-three punch of "American Idiot", "Jesus of Suburbia" and "St. Jimmy" from American Idiot. They ripped through a trio of Dookie cuts, "Longview", "Welcome to Paradise," and "She", with the audience singing along with every word. Nimrod concert favorite "King for a Day" segued into a cover of the classic juke joint rave-up "Shout" and 1999's "Minority" and the Idiot opus "Homecoming" closed the show, and the crowd spilled out onto Telegraph Avenue, stunned drunk on the vibes from seeing one of the world's biggest rock bands play an intimate hometown theater gig.

It was an "I was there" for sure.

Set List:

21st Century Breakdown

Know Your Enemy

Viva La Gloria! 

Before the Lobotomy

Christian's Inferno

Last Night on Earth

East Jesus Nowhere


Last of the American Girls

Murder City

Viva La Gloria? (Little Girls)

Restless Heart Syndrome

Horseshoes and Handgrenades

The Static Age

21 Guns

American Eulogy

See The Light


American Idiot

Jesus of Suburbia

St. Jimmy


Welcome to Paradise


King for a Day (Shout)