Rise Against, AFI, and Anti-Flag at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Punk Rockers Have Cashed In, Haven’t Sold Out

Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath

Paul Wellman

Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath

Bands like Rise Against, AFI, and Anti-Flag, who played the Santa Barbara Bowl September 29 on their Mourning in Amerika tour, represent later-generation punk rock. Their musical styles infuse certain trademarks of the original genre, like an aggressive backbeat at a fever pace and anti-establishment commentary, into a more widely digestible melodic line and pop-music structures. These bands have each been in existence for two decades or more and have achieved varying degrees of mainstream success, pulling them from the obscurity of tiny clubs and midday festival slots and thrusting them onto the upscale stages of venues like the Bowl.

With this upgrade comes the addition of professional lights-and-effects packages that punctuated the respective sets with dramatic gravitas. Old-school punk ethos, as expressed by ’80s punk band Youth Brigade, submits that “old punks don’t die … They just cash in.” Yet these performances did not suggest the assumed complacency of fat-cat, big-money musical acts touring for fame. Anti-Flag and AFI each had vigorous sets that kept the crowd on their feet (and kept the mosh pit circling), and Rise Against provided a fully realized performance with a range of emotional notes that exhibited musical and presentational maturity. The Mourning in Amerika tour showed that though they aren’t kids anymore, these punks still rock.

There’s a level of rebellious ideology to be expected from bands with names such as Anti-Flag and Rise Against, but the appealing aspect of these mid-career musicians is their intention to use their platform to effect social change. These bands have certainly “cashed in” — they’ve been signed to major labels and enjoyed the spoils of mainstream radio hits — yet have branded themselves as activists, progressive influencers, and advocates for peace and social evolution. The music may be loud and express rage with the state of the American nation, but the performers were generous and enthusiastic in their interactions with the fans and fostered a sense of unrestrained joy from their audience at the bowl.

Both opening acts have dropped new work within the last two years. Anti-Flag put out American Fall in 2017, and AFI debuted its 10th album, simply called AFI, in early 2017. Anti-Flag has a look and sound more akin to traditional punk rock, but AFI is a punk-rock outlier with a more lyrical style and theatrical air. AFI played through more than a decade of radio hits, including “Miss Murder” and “Girl’s Not Grey”; frontman Davey Havok set the tone for the band’s fashionably glam-goth vibe with his unique high-pitched wailing.

The tone of headliner Rise Against’s set was unambiguously political. The galvanizing language of songs like “Blood-Red, White, and Blue” and “Hero of War” implores listeners to question the government-sanctioned brutality of war. Lead vocalist Tim McIlrath recognized Santa Barbarans and other survivors of last winter’s California wildfires before playing “Help Is on the Way,” a song written about a population left waiting for insufficient government aid after Hurricane Katrina.

The band changed tempo radically mid-set, with McIlrath supplying a series of solo, acoustic numbers, including love song “Swing Life Away,” which displayed the softer side of Rise Against. The encore brought the entire band back onstage to crank up the volume, and they ended the night with “Prayer of the Refugee.” The 90-minute set was tight and crisp; McIlrath has a talent for spare, intelligent descriptors of the band’s work that offered a viewpoint, gave background, and still moved the show forward at a pace that maintained the pulsing energy apparent throughout the audience, from pit to beer garden. Rise Against’s socially conscious rock presents a band that, while having “cashed in,” has not sold out its message.