Contrary to popular opinion, rock operas, once the height of pop ambition, didn’t exactly die with the extinction of vinyl. There’s a certain amount of hubris, though, when a band travels down that road paved with good intentions more than once. As borne out by this intimate live preview, “21st Century Breakdown” — a sequel of sorts to Green Day’s career-defining “American Idiot” — remains in its predecessor’s looming shadow.
The album, which just hit stores, is a bit fussy in its recorded form, a problem remedied in this stripped-down presentation. It’s also monochromatic, dark and steely, rife with shadows and lurching riffs, which work in its favor in concert. The songs, character sketches really, unfolded with surprising grace in this context, particularly “Last of the American Girls,” a lonely, lissome foray into the realm of female adolescence.
With the exception of “Know Your Enemy,” delivered here in short, sharp fashion, the new songs steered clear of the anthemic, defying the audience to pump its fists or sing along readily. The tone wasn’t purposefully downbeat — frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and two touring guitarists erected a compelling, shimmering wall of sound — but it was far more suited to the seated arenas the band will be hitting this summer.
The “encore” — really a second set of equal length — provided the release to counterbalance the tension built up during the evening’s first segment. Alternately aggressive, cathartic and just plain silly, the set featured material that spanned the band’s oeuvre, from hits like “Longview” to fan favorites like “She.” The sextet hit its stride most effectively on three-chord bulldozers, but Armstrong seemed more comfortable in the role of showman.
He has a great deal in common with John Mellencamp — the working class roots, the simmering Napoleon complex and, perhaps most importantly, the conflict between wanting to be taken seriously and needing to be the class clown. He manifested the latter most effectively in a knowingly goofy oldies medley anchored by a Branson-ready version of “Shout” — but peppered with a cappella renditions of tunes as offbeat as “Swanee” and “Baby Face.”
Those juxtapositions create something of a disconnect, but they also point to a light at the end of pomp-punk’s tunnel — one that Green Day has drawn a bead on with encouraging alacrity.
Green Day plays New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 26-27 and the Forum in Los Angeles on Aug. 25-26.