At the end of the day, what truly compels someone to come to a concert is their love of the music that their favorite band plays — and the sheer energy with which they present it to their fans. Take away the light shows, the falling props, the dancing backdrops, and the larger-than-life haircuts, and what brings people to a concert, what REALLY sells out a club and packs its patrons in tighter than sardines in a tin can, is the overwhelming desire to watch an artist deliver their heart and soul onstage, in the form of bellowing voices, howling guitars, and an onstage presence that drains the viewer just by beholding it. Irrespective of genre, of geographical location, and even of time period, it is truly the mindbendingly ecstatic bands that pulls in all comers — even well-known and loved artists of other musical worlds. Thus, it was little surprise that members of bands such as Rise Against, Metallica, Faith No More, AFI, As I Lay Dying, Death Angel, and Sevendust were on hand to experience one of the most incredible performances of 2012, when newly-reunited Swedish hardcore juggernauts Refused took the stage at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and delivered a set that was paralyzing and stunning in its intensity.
Refused singer Dennis Lyxzén would later remark his amazement at the full set of bands on the bill for the special night, beginning with Los Angeles crossover punks The Bronx. Not ones to let their short set and and small stage room dwindle their excitement, singer Matt Caughthran and the rest of the band rushed onto the stage and immediately barreled into the set with a marvelous fervor. Drummer Jorma Vik and bassist Brad Magers held down a rock-solid rhythm section, hurling themselves into their instruments as Caughthran pinballed back and forth between their two guitarists, Joby Ford and Ken Horne. The crowd took little time to respond, with the inner pit of the Warfield floor turning into a churning mass of bodies, sweat and muscles within the first two songs of the band’s set. Only a few moments of pause were offered between songs, with Caughthran using one to honor the recently-deceased Dick Clark by performing his own countdown, and leaping into the crowd moments later in his raucous energy.
A source of confusion for the more aggressive and chaotic members of the audience was the inclusion of The Hives to the evening’s bill, but for those who arrived just to see their Swedish garage rock heroes, it was pure joy the moment that the red curtain parted and the quintet burst onstage in their trademark black-and-white tuxedos and top hats. Where the Bronx had seemed to see how wild of a mosh pit they could get festering in the crowd, singer Pelle Almqvist and the rest of The Hives simply wanted every person in the theater on their feet, dancing, swaying, and thundering along to their irresistibly catchy tunes. Almqvist and his brother Niklas “Arson” led the group in an animated and bombastic display of crazed dance moves, wild jumps off of amplifiers and of the drumset of Christian “Dangerous” Grahn, and hurling themselves to the edge of the stage to gain the audience’s participation in singing along. Almqvist’s tongue-in-cheek humor and biting wit was present between every song of the set, with scathing but good-natured remarks about Coachella acts, Sweden, and punk rock music, juxtaposed alongside the introductions to each number. In closing their set with the fan favorite “Tick Tick Tick Boom!”, Almqvist insisted that everyone in the audience sit on the floor — even threatening to play the same notes for another hour if they didn’t comply — before raising them up to their feet for the dynamite conclusion.
Even after the Bronx’s excellent opening to the evening, and the infectious swagger of The Hives that got most of the crowd to shake themselves silly, it was the final parting of the curtain to a black fabric screen that got the loudest roar of unadulterated excitement from the salivating crowd. As the lights on the stage shimmered to life, it was revealed that the curtain had the name of the main act set into it, along with a random peppering of diamond and square shapes, which offered a tiny glimpse to the moment that was fast approaching as the light shined through the word “REFUSED”. When, at last, it had reached a near-blinding pitch, a disembodied voice proclaimed the name of the opening number — “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” — and the curtain fell as a cataclysmic eruption of screams greeted the appearance of the Umeå quintet, matched only by the howling sonic mayhem of the band, who exploded into their set with unparalleled vigor. The hour had finally come — Refused was onstage at the Warfield Theatre.
For nigh until the stroke of midnight, the energy within the theater seemed to be in constant raging conflict between the band onstage and the ferocious crowd that writhed and swarmed before them. Guitarists Jon Brännström and Kristofer Steen took up their task with the greatest of ease, leaping up and down as they unleashed powerful, snarling riffs out into the crowd, all the while backed by the jackhammer-precise onslaught of David Sandström’s vicious percussion. It was singer Dennis Lyxzén, however, that truly embodied the burning heart and soul of the band’s unrelenting fury. If ever there was a moment where he was still, it was brief and paired with the scathing glare of a predator on the prowl. More than once, those in the crowd not already caught up in the crush surrounding them were seen to gaze in awe at the frontman, as he shrieked with unyielding harshness, a banshee set aflame with passion and violent energy.
Unlike the relatively consistent sets that had been offered at each of their secret Sweden gigs, or their festival appearance at the first weekend of Coachella, the San Francisco crowd was provided an excellent set that spanned the course of Refused’s career. While definitely taking a large chunk from their 1998 magnum opus The Shape Of Punk To Come, the band also threw in some special treats, such as “Rather Be Dead”, “Coup D’État” and “Hook, Line & Sinker” from their sophomore release Songs To Fan The Flames Of Discontent, and a rare performance of “Everlasting” from one of their earliest EPs. Lyxzén introduced many of the older songs, while offering only a quick naming of the titles from the more well-known numbers. To close the set, the band returned after an encore break for a truly apocalyptic performance of “New Noise”, which created titanic mosh pits on every single level of the floor of the Warfield Theatre. This was followed by the astonishing “Tannhäuser”, which built from a slow and deadly rhythm up to a burst of sound and chaos that was terrifying in its scale, matched only by the eruption of several cannons of smoke during each chorus — a truly incredible end to an unquestionably epic night.
In the ten years that I have spent hoping and praying for Refused to reunite and perform in San Francisco, I never thought that my wish would be granted at such a mindblowing level in the form of one of the greatest concerts I have ever witnessed in my life. In the few moments when the band settled to an imperceptible calm, Lyxzén greeted his onlookers with immense joy and happiness. This was a band at last living the dream of coming to San Francisco and headlining a show that was legendary in scope and scale — they had reached the status of legends in their own right, in their decade of absence. With nearly ten already-sold-out shows under their belt this year, and a string of festival appearances still to come, it is clear that Refused are no longer fucking dead — they would rather be alive.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.