Since forming nearly twenty years ago, AFI has seen a wide variety of lineup, label, and stylistic changes. Beginning in 1991 as a California skate-punk act, the band routinely covered The Misfits and touched on topics such as mohawks. In 2009, AFI finds themselves long removed from their days of adolescent rebellion with more in common with Morrissey and David Bowie than Dag Nasty and Danzig.
Still, the band has their roots. In support of their most radio-ready album to date, the band brought emerging UK punk quintet Gallows as the band’s lone support. Selling out Sayreville’s 2200-capacity Starland Ballroom, AFI offered brief glimpses into their past throughout the evening but were clearly more interested in their latest material, most specifically 2009’s Crash Love and 2003’s Sing the Sorrow.
Lone opener Gallows started the evening with their British blend of punk rock. Fronted by the charismatic Frank Carter, the five-piece played material from their debut, Orchestra of Wolves, and 2009’s Grey Britain. Though I missed the band’s full performance, the ten-song setlist follows:
London is the Reason
Come Friendly Bombs
The Great Forgiver
I Dread the Night
In the Belly of a Shark
Orchestra of Wolves
“Torch Song” began things for AFI, who for the first time in a decade opened their set without a specially tailored intro (such as Sing the Sorrow‘s “Miseria Canteria” or Decemberunderground‘s “Prelude 12/21”). Without much suspense, the band kicked into their biggest single, “Girls Not Grey”. “The Leaving Song Pt. II” followed, and the crowd responded with a floor full of dancing.
Shoes and other items were lost during the frenzy, prompting frontman Davey Havok to inquire about an estranged sneaker. Both playful and thoughtful, Havok tried his best to return the footwear to its barefooted owner, but the item ended up in the hands of a fan who was creepily thrilled just to have something that Havok had touched.
Winona Rider-inspired “Veronica Sawyer Smokes” was a welcomed change of pace from the aggressive “The Leaving Song Pt. II”, offering Havok his first chance of the night to showcase his excellent range. “Ever and a Day” found the band jumping back to 2000’s Nitro Records effort, The Art of Drowning, exciting everyone in the crowd who has been following the band for some time.
Sick of it All’s Lou Koller came on stage to provide additional vocals on “Kill Caustic”, transforming a mediocre song into a powerhouse. The audience reacted appropriately with a giant pit, even if most of the crowd was entirely too young to understand or appreciate Koller’s influence on not only AFI but also punk music across America. The radio-ready “End Transmission” calmed things down, offering no indication of the excellent surprise just minutes away.
Dedicating the song to Gallows, the band exploded into “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”, a hardcore-punk romp originally appearing on 1993’s Eddie Picnic’s All Wet EP. The glimpse back into AFI’s past was unexpected and absolutely phenomenal, albeit short-lived.
“Dancing Through Sunday” was excellent, with guitarist Jade Puget tearing through the song’s finger-tapped solo. A few quiet numbers followed, with “The Leaving Song” and Decemberunderground b-side “On the Arrow”, the latter featuring drummer Adam Carson for the first time stepping out from behind the skins to provide percussion in the form of a hand shaker.
The Refused-like “Death of Seasons” was one of the night’s highlights, and single “Medicate” received a solid performance. A strong rendition of “Love Like Winter” closed the set and the band walked off stage.
AFI returned on stage to loud applause with a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. “Miss Murder” followed, with the crowd exploding on Hunter Burgan’s opening bass notes. The wintery “Silver and Cold” finished the evening. The full set:
Girls Not Grey
The Leaving Song Pt. II
Veronica Sawyer Smokes
Ever and a Day
Love is a Many Splendored Thing
Dancing Through Sunday
The Leaving Song
On the Arrow
Death of Seasons
Love Like Winter
Just Like Heaven (The Cure cover)
Silver and Cold
The band’s setlist was disappointing, with just two songs from 1991-2002. Black Sails in the Sunset, possibly the band’s best work, was entirely absent. Longtime staples from the era (“Totalimmortal”, “God Called in Sick Today”, “The Days of the Phoenix”) were questionably missing. One third of the set came from 2003’s Sing the Sorrow. Crash Love contributed five songs, a fair number considering the album’s recent release. The Cure cover was well-performed but unnecessary, as the band performed the song during their previous trip to Starland Ballroom.
Disappointing setlist aside, the songs AFI did select to perform sounded excellent with few exceptions (“Girls Not Grey” is a weak live cut; “Miss Murder” is a weak song). Havok has never sounded better, and Crash Love tracks like “Beautiful Thieves” sounded much better than they do on the album. Burgan’s vocal harmonies–a new addition to AFI’s live repertoire–sounded great.
AFI continues on their tour with Gallows into December, including a November stop in New York City at the 3200-person Roseland Ballroom. New fans of AFI (2003 to present) will find much to love in the band’s excellent live show and major label-heavy setlist, while old fans cannot help but feel disappointed in knowing that buried underneath every bland “Girls Not Grey” and uninspired “Miss Murder” sits a dusty catalog of some of the greatest goth-punk songs ever written.