SXSW: Green Day Makes Triumphant Return to the Stage

Jeff Miller
Billie Joe Armstrong onstage at Austin's Moody Theatre

Fresh off a stint in rehab, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong plays the underdog card at South by Southwest -- to great effect.

Toward the beginning of a triumphant South by Southwest show at Austin's Moody Theatre, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong yelled at the ravenous crowd, “Welcome back!” The room -- full of couldn't-be-bothered industry types, lottery winners and excitable superfans -- went nuts.

That's because Armstrong recently re-emerged after a very public breakdown that forced him into rehab, with all its attendant issues. The venerable punk-pop trio (here extended at times to a six-piece) had to halt the promotional machine behind one of its most ambitious projects ever, a threesome of records (¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tre!). The releases mostly fell on deaf ears -- none of them yielded a huge radio hit, clearly unusual for one of the most dependable, war-horse bands in the alt-rock sphere.

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So if the three band members (Mike Dirnt on bass and Tre Cool on drums) came off Friday night like they had something to prove -- well, they did. The show was bookended with songs from ¡Tre! (the blast-off “99 Revolutions” to start and “Brutal Love,” a ’50s-style banger at the end of the encore), and in between they hit all the high notes. We're talking call-and-response whoa-ohs (and oh-ay-ohs), out-there covers (Armstrong teased the lick to “Highway to Hell” in what appeared to be an unrehearsed moment -- until the entire band kicked it in), crowd-surfing fans invited onstage to sing along with the band and, most important, a run-through of the band's history, with mega-hits like “American Idiot” falling squarely on the set list in between more obscure songs dating back to their early years as scruffy kids in NorCal; one of those tunes, “Christie Road,” chugged and tugged and roared.

Interestingly, though, the band never acknowledged where they were playing -- sure, there was lots of “How ya doing, Austin?” but no mention of SXSW itself. It's a tricky balancing act, especially when, like Green Day, you're one of the biggest bands in the world, playing a convention known for breaking young up-and-comers.

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In a similar scenario at the same theater last year, Bruce Springsteen acknowledged the mayhem of a thousand bands playing at once just outside the theater. But for the guys in Green Day, this show -- and their upcoming arena tour -- is about proving themselves.

To that end, though they've sold tens of millions of albums, Armstrong has somehow become a come-from-behind underdog. Eyeing the upper rafters confidently at show's end, it fits him well.

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