Green Day not quite made for the arena

July 14, 2009


Though its members may present themselves as typical snotty slackers, Green Day can't be faulted for lack of ambition.

Not only has the long-running Bay Area pop-punk trio delivered two sprawling concept albums with its last two releases, but it's seen both hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, silencing skeptics who thought its 1994 smash ''Dookie'' was a fluke.

Meanwhile, 37-year-old Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates have long since traded the tiny all-ages dives of their early years for the biggest arenas. And they're almost convincing enough to pull it off.

Almost, but not quite: There's just no denying that punk rock was never intended to be heard in an enormodome. You need to feel the bass drum in your gut, the guitars should make your ears ring and you ought to see the singer's sneer, if not dodge his spit.

And no matter how much a band is trying to remain true to its roots, something about playing an arena brings out the arena-rock cliches.

When Green Day performed at the United Center Monday, those came in the form of cheesy pyrotechnics and snippets of corny covers ranging from Ozzy Osbourne's ''Crazy Train'' to the Jackson 5's ''I'll Be There,'' with a break for ''Take Me Out to the Ball Game'' somewhere in the middle.

All of this tomfoolery was especially annoying since the group has such a deep and rich catalog, and it only played some two dozen songs during a more than two-hour set.

The band came out strong with a salvo of some of the most ferocious tunes from the recent ''21st Century Breakdown,'' mostly eschewing the melodramatic ballads. Yet while I'm not a big fan of this rock opera about aimless youth in search of a cause -- I greatly prefer the more directly political ''American Idiot'' (2004) -- it was still disappointing that the band didn't try to make the case for the entire ''Quadrophenia''-like epic.

In the end, when the group was hitting full-throttle -- either on new material such as ''Know Your Enemy'' and ''The Static Age'' or on old favorites like ''Longview'' and ''Basket Case'' -- you could almost believe it wasn't just show business.

Then, all too soon, the sax player (one of three sidemen) would come out dressed like Michael Jackson, Armstrong would shout ''Chicago!'' for the 40th time or the band would lapse into another cover (which have been pretty much the same every night of the tour). And you'd have to admit it was all about as sincere and spontaneous as Neil Diamond in Vegas, though not as much fun.