Tuesday night gigs are a realm reserved for dedicated fans. The previous weekend has been well and truly shaken off, while the next round of shenanigans are so far away, you can’t really justify turning up to work on Wednesday with a bangover (aka the headbangers hangover). But Rise Against has become so ingrained in the lives of long term fans, they can still draw a decent-sized crowd seemingly any night of the week. Such is the dedication of lifelong punks.
Everyone was evidently in the mood to share some love in Sydney, as local hardcore rockers Bare Bones pulled plenty of punters with their groovy take on the genre. These guys have been in the game for some time now, but they’ve kind of been stuck in entry level venues for the most part until the release of their debut last year. Even then, the transition to bigger stages hasn’t exactly been smooth, as Bare Bones still seemed right at home in tiny pubs and clubs, away from the arenas and epic rooms.
That is, until they opened for Rise Against. For the first time, Sydney saw a version of Bare Bones that was ready for the big leagues. A band that finally felt comfortable in huge halls, and knew how to work a room where punters were more than a few inches from their faces. The enthusiasm, the showmanship and tight technicality that made the sweaty, underground venue shows so great back in the day had made their way to the Hordern. What started as a few fanatics that lived and breathed Bones, coupled with hundreds of curious onlookers, grew into a room full of new fans, dutifully throwing their horns to the sky on command.
After nearly 20 years in the biz, Rise Against have refined the art of showmanship. Their stage presence (complete with punk jumps and pure enthusiasm), the immense lighting rig, even their song selection that spread across almost the entire discography much to the delight of long term fans, it was a constant reminder that Rise Against don’t just get on stage to play, they travel the world to perform.
Almost every song enjoyed roaring sing-a-long scenes of unbridled joy from the audience, lead by a blatantly excited Tim McIlrath who, even after all these years, still seems to get a huge rush when it’s time to put on a show. Though there were a fair few newcomers, most of the room was made up of Rise Against lifers, and it showed, as row after row after row roared along with the band. In a way, Rise Against were aware that they’re no longer attracting new fans en masse, as most of the set was devoted to classics that everyone could enjoy. Just three songs from their latest record Wolves, the one they were on the road promoting, made the cut.
And yet, for a band that makes a point of being politically and socially charged, so much so that they walked on stage to the sound of artillery and airstrikes, there was a distinct lack of between-song-banter about current events. No matter how you slice it, America’s current political situation has reignited a flame in Rise Against that hasn’t burned so fiercely in years, but McIlrath barely alluded to contemporary events. Still, actions speak louder than words in some ways, and that burning passion had something of a youthful impact on their stage presence and energy.
Despite the lack of blatant discussion, some songs struck a poignant nerve. At the midpoint, McIlrath was left alone on stage to play a trio of acoustic songs, providing a moment of reflection and physical respite for the room. Crowd favourite “Hero of War” had the Hordern singing in unison, but “People Live Here” cut a particularly deep wound when McIlrath explained that a song he’d written in a moment years before, had unfortunately become relevant again today. Though short, the acoustic section was a beautiful highlight, and reminded everyone that there’s so much more to Rise Against than angrily screaming at the world to the tune of distorted riffs.
But though the Rise Against live show is still a sight to behold, particularly in a room full of dedicated fans, more than a few cracks are beginning to rear their head. McIlrath isn’t as young as he used to be, and years of singing in a register that’s now out of his range, is taking a serious toll on his voice. Older tracks just didn’t have as much vocal punch, choruses in the higher-end crackled and strained, and by the end of the classics, McIlrath’s throat almost seemed worn out and weak.
Songs plucked from Wolves actually sound better on stage, as he’s adjusted the compositions to fit his current range and, credit where credit’s due, he can still scream with the force of a hurricane. But the impact on songs recorded a decade or so ago is apparent, and you can’t help but wonder if he’s causing permanent damage.
Few shows are perfect, and little slip ups in time, tone and technicality are more or less expected. So when Rise Against stumbled a few times early in the set, few people batted an eyelid. However, when things fell out of whack again, and again, and again throughout the show, it became pretty clear that they were struggling to keep time during the older, faster numbers. Drums would go, then McIlrath would start to sing independent of any time signatures to the point where it almost seemed like they were struggling to hear each other on stage.
That, combined with an on-off mix that felt too drum-forward, often snapped punters out of sweet moshy moments. Rise Against were quick to recover, though these issues were a little too persistent for veteran musicians like these guys. When they did hit the mark and exploded into what should have been joyous moments of pure punk pandemonium, everything just kind of fell flat as the atmosphere was stretched thin across a large venue below capacity.
Punk is a shared experience. Everyone crams together and becomes deaf, sweaty best friends with ten people around them for an evening before shuffling back to their work-a-day lives. While Rise Against could easily pack out large rooms back in the day, the turnout suggests that they’re perhaps beyond that point, and would be better suited in slightly smaller, sold-out venues where hardcore fans can come together and tear the place apart.
So while they still know how to bring the punk party to Australia, the growing list of issues emphasised the strange spot that Rise Against is in after almost twenty years. The energy is there, the enthusiasm is there, and the unfortunate fact that punks write their best music when the world is at its worst has completely reinvigorated these guys. Hell, if anything the punk scene still needs these guys, as songs they penned in the past have once again become painfully relevant.
But it feels as though they’re beyond the point of consistent growth, which makes perfect sense after so long. You can tell they don’t treat touring life like a chore. Each and every member looks like they love getting on stage to give people the night of their lives, which puts them in a perfect position to scale things back a touch. To go from huge halls and arenas, to venues where Rise Against and their army of lifers can enjoy pure punk chaos.