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The Bad Religion Institute

Ain't nothing like a little Bad Religion to get those old rusty cogs and joints moving again. While it certainly may not be for everyone, an electrifying dose of heady punk rock on a Wednesday night felt like just what the doctor ordered--doctor Greg Graffin, Ph.D., that is.

Yes, that's right. The lead singer of the renowned '80s punk rock band has a masters degree from UCLA and a Ph.D from Cornell. I can't help but rub that in, not only because it flies in the face of so many preconceptions about punk rock bands, but also because it makes The Whole of Academia a teeny tiny bit cooler. But the winning (albeit unlikely) synthesis is at the heart of what has kept Bad Religion popular for over 20 years. As their sound has "developed" from the L.A. hardcore assault of the early '80s, the band has kept its lyrics and message complex, astute and satisfyingly verbose. No other band has ever prompted me to pick up a dictionary, but I had no other choice when first faced with "The Positive Aspect of Negative Thinking" as a wee lad.

Though they haven't forgotten their galloping punk rock roots, they've added a whole lot of hard rock, metal and melody over the years. Some fans hate that. Others love it. Still others don't give a flying fuck--they just poop their pants when the band comes to Santa Cruz and tears through a set spanning the duration of their existence, from "We're Only Gonna Die" to new 'uns like "Supersonic" and their big alternative hit, "Infected." Songs like "No Proof Necessary," "Modern Man" and "All Good Soldiers" were as relevant as ever, and other songs like "No Control," "Heaven Is Falling," "Atomic Garden" and "Get Off" just plain rocked the hell out of the crowd. Graffin's lyrics were on the lips of most every kid in the Catalyst, faithfully contorting their faces to capture the emotional depth of their good doctor's words.

Zimbabwean Roar

I've seen bigger crowds than the one assembled at the Rio Theatre on Saturday night for the Thomas Mapfuno and the Blacks Unlimited show. I've seen sweatier, louder, drunker crowds. But I've also seen crowds that couldn't hold a candle to the energetic and heartfelt enthusiasm that some of the ecstatic dancers displayed last Saturday night. Starting the evening off with an uplifting set of African arrangements, Sadza (named for the Zimbabwean staple usually made from ground maize) soothed and excited with complex polyphonies and polyrhythms played on marimbas and mbiras. Watching the mbira players from a distance, I couldn't help but be tickled by their high-tech Flintstonian appearance--the thumb pianos look remarkably like stone-age laptops might, with their keys mounted on a sounding board that is in turn attached to A Large Resonating Gourd. Modern mbiras have pickups mounted inside and long cords coming out of the back connecting them to an amp, which further reinforces the laptop impression. But the sound was of course entirely organic, providing a lovely contrast with the electrified guitar, bass and keyboards of the Blacks Unlimited, who have taken the traditional sound of Shona tribal music and updated it with a poppy electric high-life kind of feel. Whether he was singing about love, loss, homesickness or the joy that the people of the world feel when a soulless despot dies, Mapfuno's songs were consistently lively and vibrant. Although I can't understand his lyrics, I know that Mapfuno's protest songs ("chimurenga" music) landed him in exile and prison camps back in the '70s. Mapfuno himself was a captivating presence--his bold, upright stance, receding dreads and steady, piercing eyes give him a bit of a wolfish air, which he offsets with full Adidas regalia, spontaneously warm smiles and a few fancy dance moves here and there. Ironically, the trumpet and trombone players of the Blacks Unlimited are as white as snow, and appeared a bit awkward onstage, not really knowing what to do with themselves when they weren't playing. But the most exciting presence on the stage was Mapfuno's female backup singer, who danced the entire time and punctuated her performance with ecstatic leaps and twists that put The Matrix to shame. Not that she could actually break the laws of physics or anything, but it was still pretty amazing.

Upcoming

Bay Area-based roots reggae outfit Groundation plays the Catalyst on May 23. Shady Groove plays at Henfling's on May 23. Rusty Evans and Ring of Fire bring the spirit of Johnny Cash to Henfling's on May 27.

Mike Connor

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From the May 21-28, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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