Blacklisted’s Philadelphia Reunion Show Was Heavier Than Heaven
Unbroken titled their posthumous collection of rarities It’s Getting Tougher To Say The Right Things, and I assume they knew it’d be harder and harder to convey exactly how their 2023 reunion shows felt. The band didn’t play a show for almost a decade until they reunited earlier this year for Indecision Records’ 30th anniversary shows in Garden Grove, CA. Next year, their seminal album life. love. regret. will also turn 30, and with it we can reexamine the highs and lows of the scene, where the album’s nuanced fusion of crushing riffs and lyrical turmoil made it kosher for hardcore guys to wear their hearts on their sleeves, a little above where they marked X’s on their hands.
The reunion proposition is less appealing the older I get, especially the pitch of traveling for a reunion. I considered seeing Unbroken’s reunion earlier this year, but I passed on it, knowing the logistics of staying in Anaheim were much different than a typical trip to LA. I also felt spoiled by the amount of reunions over the past decade and a half. Bands reunite all of the time. Every third press release is about the reunion of a band I didn’t even know existed. And when they reunite, it’s never for a one-off show, it’s always two or three shows, maybe a run on both coasts.
This is all to say: It’s not hard to get me out of the house for a show a few miles away, but I’m not driving more than 30 minutes, let alone taking a four-hour plane ride to a different city altogether for a band’s reunion set. Well. Unless the band in question is Blacklisted.
The Blacklisted reunion was just as much of a surprise as their breakup was, and was handled with similar fanfare. In 2018, after a European tour, Blacklisted’s Twitter account sent a tweet saying, “This band was called Blacklisted!” After 15 years, it was over. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. After announcing their appearance at the Indecision fest, Unbroken announced a couple more reunion shows in Philadelphia with Blacklisted on the bill.
Blacklisted’s position in punk has always been that of “your favorite hardcore band’s favorite hardcore band.” Dark without brooding, pensive without pondering, and emotional without being emo, They represented a smarter and more lyrically powerful form of hardcore. Still, frontman George Hirsch never sold himself as some kind of warrior poet. The band felt esoteric but never cultivated that image. You knew what they looked like in press photos, and the music was borderline accessible when they were at their peak in popularity. Blacklisted took the weight of the heaviest Converge songs and merged it with the slickest, crunchiest riffs from Nirvana’s Bleach and In Utero. They put out stellar release after stellar release, leaving peers and fans alike to wonder how the hell they did it. The band accepted the praise but treated it with a little bit of nonchalance, like when Michael Jordan shrugged off his sixth consecutive three-pointer in the ‘92 Finals. Fifteen years after that shooting streak, Blacklisted released Peace On Earth, War On Stage in 2007, with Jordan’s famous Jumpman logo in the center of the album art.
When I saw Blacklisted were going to appear with Unbroken at Philly’s First Unitarian Church, hallowed ground for 2000s subculture, I knew I had to be there. Damnation A.D. and Entry were slated to open, and that was icing on the cake. I’m in. The Church, as locals call it, is exactly that. It’s a stage in the basement of a Unitarian church northwest of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. If Philly had a tourism board for punk rock, it would rank third on the must-see list after Grindcore House and the Church’s neighbor, the Mütter Museum. The stage floor’s carpet ranks up there with Portland’s airport in terms of “memorable carpets,” which is a funny metric to go by, but I promise that you’ve seen a photo of your favorite band on that stage. Your favorite band played the Church and probably loved playing the Church. Unbroken, later in the night, called it their favorite venue.
I arrived as the last notes of Crashing Forward’s set rang out and leaned against the wall watching my Denver Nuggets play the Memphis Grizzlies before Entry took the stage. As fate would have it, Sara G. from Entry wore a Los Angeles Clippers Paul George jersey onstage The band cranked through their set and, I’m hoping, gained a bunch of fans in the process. Entry’s Detriment LP from 2020 and this year’s Exit Interview 7″ are two of the better hardcore records of the decade thus far, both heavier and better-sounding than so many of their contemporaries. Live, Entry are a different entity altogether; their presence is all-consuming and demands your attention. The band is so damn loud. Sara G. roars every lyric but enunciates in such a way that you understand it — and you’d better understand it.
After Entry were Damnation A.D., a metalcore band that started over 30 years ago in Washington, DC. Like Unbroken, they were of the straight-edge persuasion and their lyrics focused on darker, more personal themes. This is a bit of a running theme with the final three bands of the night. They started with lead singer Mike McTernan Facetiming his niece and asking us to say happy birthday to her. He ended the call with, “You are loved,” and soon the band ripped into their set. At one point between songs, McTernan brought up the weight of the lyrics in Damnation’s music, but it could’ve been for any of the last three bands. He said that at this point in his life, with people like his niece in his life now, the last thing he wants is for her to feel any pain in this world and how much it hurts him when she’s in pain. He related that to how his mother must have felt hearing Damnation’s music, and it was one of the more powerful bits of stage banter I’ve been privileged to hear. It’s not that I’ve never thought about it, but the perspective shifted how I felt about music from Unbroken and Blacklisted giving me so much solace throughout my life.
Unbroken were up next, and they played the hits. It was exactly the kind of set a fan would hope for, fast and efficient, with none of the rust you’d expect from a band that hadn’t played a show for nine years before this summer. They opened with “D4,” the first song off of life. love. regret., and the crowd at the front of the stage turned into a mountain of limbs, all waving and pointing. Their mouths all moved in sync, yelling the same words right back at frontman Dave Claibourn. People along the walls ran up and joined the pile, some even jumping from the stage onto its peak. Unbroken are simply one of those bands whose emotional appeal is to remind the listener that we’re not alone in this world. The thesis of straight-edge hardcore is that yes, you are unique, but you are rarely ever alone. These bands laid bare the pain that they feel inside out for an audience to embrace and empathize with, and their music has a 30-year legacy of inspiring just that.
Unbroken closed with possibly their biggest song, “Absentee Debate.” It’s one of the best hardcore songs of all time, if not the best. “We live and die with our opinions,” Claibourn started singing, but he was drowned out by the sold-out crowd. “Absentee Debate” is a song about not caring what some dork has to say to you, whether it’s about your hair or your clothes, that X on your hand, or the music you like. Do you think there’s some flaw in my logic? I don’t care. Do you think punk rock is a juvenile pursuit, puerile and simple? I don’t care. Do you think there are better places to be than in the basement of a church in downtown Philly, sweating my ass off next to 600 other people? I don’t care. The band jammed out the end of the song, urging an entire crowd to scream, “I DON’T CARE,” along with Claibourn for what felt like years. I could’ve lived in that moment forever.
Finally, Blacklisted were up. The moment we’d all waited for. It’s not the reunion anyone expected, and the ever-unpredictable band could unexpectedly cancel. It was an event that didn’t feel possible until it started. The man of the hour, George Hirsch, took the stage and grabbed the mic. The lights dimmed, and Hirsch denounced the genocide in Palestine in no uncertain terms before saying, “Cut the fucking lights, this band is called Blacklisted.” Whoever worked the lights obliged, and the band launched into “Tourist” from their first LP, The Beat Goes On. Again, the front of the stage turned into a pile of bodies but the pit turned into a boxing ring where fighters rarely connected their punches yet threw every haymaker as if it was the last gasp at knocking out an opponent. This was Blacklisted’s show, their Game 1 on home court just like Jordan’s Bulls in ‘92, and they hit shot after shot after shot.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of bands’ big reunion shows, but I’ve never seen a band so perfectly polished like Blacklisted were on Friday night. No mistakes, no jitters. Hirsch bounced around on stage like he never stopped playing these songs, knowing exactly where and when each pile-on or stage dive would be. He wasn’t going through the motions; he was built for this.
Five years without a show seems like a short time, but this reunion seemed so far out of reach, not because the band hated each other (members currently play in the band Staticlone together) but because it just didn’t feel like something that they’d do. Again, this wasn’t a band that dealt in fanfare and hype — they built it after years of fan appreciation. At one point, Hirsch referenced their hesitance to reunite while the band tuned. “…The only reason we’re here tonight is because Unbroken asked us. And how could we say ‘no’ when we always say ‘no.'”
Later, Hirsch would talk about how important the First Unitarian Church was to the legacy of Philadelphia punk and hardcore by introducing a cover song from a band he saw in that same basement, 26 years ago. It was the Friday before Halloween, Blacklisted were back from the dead, and they channeled the spirit of Ink & Dagger for a cover of “Full Circle” that I’ll never forget. To get in the spirit of the season, I put on my costume of “Someone Who Has Health Insurance” and made my way to the front to climb on people and scream along. Ink & Dagger are notorious for being a vampire-themed hardcore band, but “Full Circle” could’ve been a Blacklisted song with lyrics like “This time was supposed to be different” and “Tonight we tried to die on purpose/ I have to ask, was it really worth it?”
The set was mostly music from 2008 fan-favorite Heavier Than Heaven, Lonelier Than God, but the couple of songs off of 2009’s No One Deserves To Be Here More Than Me and 2015’s When People Grow, People Go spurred the same sort of response that those songs got. There were no valleys in the performance, only peaks. The band closed with the final song on Heavier, “Wish,” where Hirsch intimately reveals his last requests, such as a eulogy from Chan Marshall, and wonders if the lasting impression of his legacy is that he was always unpredictable and crazy. The titular wish is to not be so unstable, and Hirsch even mentions, “If I was ever anything at all, that’s breaking news to me.” But the crowd there that night said otherwise. It was hundreds of people, in person, affirming that Blacklisted weren’t just anything, they were everything.
For years, there wasn’t anyone as deft as Blacklisted when it came to blending emotion and raw power. They started in 2003, and before them, the best to do it was Unbroken. Both bands captured the feeling of being alone in your life but not alone in this world and carried that legacy up until their dissolutions and sparse reformations. I have no clue if Unbroken will continue to play into the future or if this was just a good summer to be an Unbroken fan. These were Blacklisted’s only scheduled reunion shows. We should only be so lucky to have them play as many reunions as Unbroken have. Michael Jordan hung up his basketball jersey two separate times only to come out of retirement, so maybe there’s hope for another Blacklisted show somewhere down the line.