A funny thing happened to all those kids who started punk bands in the ’70s and ’80s. They grew up; the lucky ones even got old. But they didn’t go away, and neither did their fans.
The Bouncing Souls —New Jersey’s preeminent punk band, fast approaching their 30th anniversary — proved that at Jersey City’s White Eagle Hall on Saturday night, lighting up a sold-out crowd of 800 fans in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Millennials were as hard to find as cocktail dresses in the throng, which heartily sang along to the Souls’ carousing anthems to unity and revelry in leather, denim, band patches, metal studs and the other regalia of punk rock survivors.
George Rebelo became the third Bouncing Souls drummer in 2013, but the other band members — singer Greg Attonito, bassist Bryan Kienlen, and guitarist Pete Steinkopf— have played together since 1989, when four Jersey teens decided to move to New Brunswick and start a basement band rather than go to college. From endless summers on the Warped Tour to world tours, and through 10 solid albums, the Bouncing Souls have nurtured their optimistic, simply chorded punk songs into a worldwide brand, spawning a T-shirt company, a booking agency and a record label from within their tight-knit community. And their audience became “True Believers” as well (to borrow the title of a favorite song). Fans don’t go to a Bouncing Souls show to watch but to participate, whether in the obligatory mosh pit or just singing along at the top of their lungs.
In past years, the Souls celebrated Christmas with a December residency at the Stone Pony called “Home for the Holidays,” but this year the band decided instead to put together a three-night tour of large venues with one of their inspirations, TSOL (or True Sounds of Liberty). These SoCal veterans formed in 1978 and barely survived tumultuous early years of near-constant personnel changes. But the original members re-formed and won the right to the name in the ’90s; drummer Mike Barnes died in 1999, but singer Jack Grisham, guitarist Ron Emory and bassist Mike Roche have been touring and recording ever since, with various drummers.
Grisham’s jet-black hair has turned silvery gray but he remains a formidable frontman with a powerful and commanding voice, whether belting out of one TSOL’s political screeds like “Abolish Government” or angst-filled anthems like “Sick in My Head.” It’s surprising but even a song about teenage bullies (“Fuck You, Tough Guy”) seems to make sense coming from these grizzled old-timers. (Maybe life is high school, as many a philosopher has opined.)
While TSOL’s set didn’t lack for energy, Grisham’s patter between songs remained light and conversational. “The first time we came east was in 1981,” Grisham reminisced to the crowd, “and we played with the Beastie Boys and the Bad Brains at CBGB. There were about 100 people there. But if everybody who says there were there now had really been there, I wouldn’t have had to live with my mother until I was 40.” He brought the same wit to the band’s longevity. “You know, the first time I retired from all this stuff, my current wife hadn’t even been born yet,” Grisham joked. Then the band roared into another song several years older than the club’s soundman.
The Bouncing Souls, having a little fun themselves, came onstage to the strains of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” As if. The crowd started singing along with the first whipcrack beat from Rebelo’s snare and didn’t stop until the last encore was over. From early tracks like “The Ballad of Johnny X” and “These Are the Quotes From Our Favorite 80’s Movies” to more recent favorites like “Lean on Sheena,” the setlist focused on the band’s halcyon years, from their self-titled ‘97 breakthrough album to 2003’s Anchors Aweigh.
Like the Ramones, the Souls figured out long ago that it doesn’t really matter if it all sounds the same as long as it all sounds good. So there are few surprises musically, just eternal favorites like “No Regrets” and “East Coast! Fuck You!,” “Hopeless Romantic,” “Bullying the Jukebox,” “Private Radio” and “Sing Along Forever.”
At a Bouncing Souls show years ago at Irving Plaza, I saw the crowd pass a young man in a wheelchair over their heads from the back of the theater all the way onto the stage, and until this show, that had been the most amazing thing I’d ever seen at a concert. But at this show, Attonito stopped the music for a moment to bring a young man onstage from the audience, and waved a young woman up with him. Then on bended knee, in front of 800 screaming Bouncing Soul fans, the young man proposed.
(We think she said yes.)
“I can’t believe we’re finally in Jersey City,” Attonito said early in the set, and then later added, “What’s this place called again? White Eagle Hall? It’s fantastic! So thank you, Jersey City, because this place is finally broken in.”