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Green Day smokes Arco audience

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It’s easy to miss how BIG pop punk trio Green Day is. Well, it was easy to miss until Monday night at ARCO Arena.

But anyone who saw the evening’s non-stop, all-out extravaganza left with no doubt: Green Day is one major rock ‘n’ roll band.

Playing for just shy of three straight hours with barely a pause to take their breath, the band — singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt, with a few sidemen — pulled out every trick in the rock ‘n’ roll playbook, from spectacular explosions and dazzling visuals to a relentless, open-hearted desire to connect.

During the show, which drew a crowd a few thousand short of the 16,000 needed for a sell-out, the band focused on tracks from their three biggest albums: their 1994 major label debut, "Dookie," which has sold more than 10 million copies, and the last two albums, the rock opera "American Idiot" and this year’s "21st Century Breakdown." They’ve recorded with U2.

"American Idiot" sold five million copies and will be reborn as a potentially Broadway-bound musical next month, which is pretty big. But because the band grew up near here — in Berkeley’s late ’80s Gilman Street punk scene — and because they have kept it musically simple even as they grow more thematically ambitious, the band can seem to loom small.

But Monday night they pulled out all the stops, Armstrong a dynamo who never seemed to stop moving or egging on the crowd (with liberal use of the F-bomb), pulling members out to play guitar for him or sing verses as he worked the rest of the audience.

And sing along they did. Most concert audiences are by definition devoted, but Green Day’s was passionate from the start. Keeping any crowd’s attention for three hours is no mean feat, but to have near total buy-in from the entire audience, which stood and waved hands in time and sang along to nearly every song, well, that’s big.

In some ways, this was a hometown crowd, the next-to-last show on the band’s U.S. tour (they head for Europe after a month’s break), and Armstrong made a point of telling a story about the then-young band’s 1988 gig in Davis, and about another show the next year in Sacramento. He even compared the crowd favorably to the less-responsive one in San Jose a few days before, and it didn’t seem like pandering. It’s hard to imagine a crowd being more engaged.

The band connects with simple, memorable material. Three chords and a relentless beat provided by Cool is all they need, and the audience’s participation, on stage and off, was a reminder that one big reason Green Day has remained huge is that they play music that anyone can play — or sing along with. "Jesus of Suburbia" featured a young member of the audience who’d come all the way from Israel to get on stage with the band, and proved himself worth the trip.

Green Day gone further lyrically, and to some degree musically, with their last two albums, with explicit concerns about the rise of the warfare state and techno-fascism (Armstrong’s colors were red and black). At one point during the songs from those heavier albums, Armstrong pushed the political theme, at one point even yelling, "Arnold Schwarzenegger, get the f— out!"

The more recent material made excellent use of the spectacularly sophisticated backdrop, worthy of bands like U2 and Radiohead, who are better known for the visual aspects of their shows. What looked like a huge video screen stood behind individual cut-out towers of video screen, giving remarkably deep dimension to the stage. The images were largely abstract and subtle, no small feat of engineering and design.

Green Day is by no means in U2 or Radiohead’s league in terms of music or the lyrical themes they tackle, and Green Day sometimes seems to be trying too hard to get into that league. But they are very much their peers when it comes to rockin’ a house, which was even more apparent in the show’s second half, shorn of big themes and working the evergreen punk of "Dookie." In fact, Armstrong reminded me of no one so much as a pint-sized Bruce Springsteen, both athletically and in his open-souled desire to entertain and connect. Early on in the show, he screamed, "Turn off the cell phone! This is our moment!" And near the show’s conclusion, he shouted, "We don’t know if we’re going to be alive tomorrow!"

That impulse to seize the moment, to rage against the dying of the light, is an impulse that unites many great rockers, and like Springsteen and other top live rock bands, Green Day played like they believe with all their souls in the communal redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll. It is a passion that can’t be faked, because no one could give that much, for that long, for a simple payday.

Green Day is a major rock band because they aim as high, or higher, than they can reach. That they got that high — and took 12,000 people with them — is proof that they are deeply, completely committed to what is, at bottom, the oldest trick in the rock ‘n’ roll playbook: Giving it everything they’ve got.

The accompanying photos were provided by Live Nation. They were shot in San Jose earlier this month.

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