Written by Emilee Lindner • February 17, 2017
Hard to believe it, but Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong turns 45 on Feb. 17, just as the band gears up for its massive 2017 Revolution Radio tour of North America (tickets here). To celebrate the tour, the band, and its versatile leader, we combed through performances from across the band's three decade career to show just how much his stage presence has evolved through years.
If you’re unfamiliar with Green Day’s earlier days, seeing them play in a venue that’s not a giant arena might take you aback. But that’s exactly how Billie Joe Armstrong started out. Billie Joe met Mike Dirnt in junior high and went on to quit school to form Green Day with Dirnt, bringing on Tre Cool in 1991—the same year this precious recording was taped. Despite growing up as a musician, Billie Joe was relatively green while performing at DIY space 924 Gilman, calling out to friends in the jam-packed Berkeley, CA crowd. He invited fans onstage, a space no bigger than a mudroom, and shared sweat with everyone else in the room. While he interacted with fellow Bay Area punks, he was always all about the music, launching into a fast-paced tune whenever the air got stale. As for the songs, there was not a ballad in sight—just a chatty Billie Joe and enough rock to make your intoxicated head spin.
Cut to Woodstock ‘94, which had Green Day rocking a stage 10 times bigger, with a full soundboard and roadies and everything. After signing to Reprise Records, Green Day’s major-label debut, Dookie, gained them crazy amounts of success. While it might’ve seemed like trio was just doing their regular thing but on a bigger stage, you can already tell subtle differences in Armstrong’s performance style. Billie Joe amped up the theatrics, swapping his brown hair for a head of electric blue and his T-shirts for a red tie and short-sleeved button-up. He’d been developing his signature playing style, slinging his guitar down low and chugging away with his entire arm—a style that would become a pure Billie Joe move. He’s still as interactive as ever, encouraging the crowd to do “the wave” and egging on their mudslinging.
As Green Day’s career progressed, their frontman found different ways to harness his adrenaline. In this show from 1998, you can see Billie Joe perfecting his power stance—feet wide apart like a yoga pose—and a statuesque form of playing that put all the attention on his famous mechanical arm. Just because he wasn’t using the stage as his racetrack, like he might’ve in the past, the energy wasn’t lost: he sprayed an airplane-sized water bottle on the audience, forced a fan to come play his guitar (and then stage dive) and got dressed using the clothes fans threw on stage. At one point, he switched places with Tre Cool to knock one out on the drums. Though Billie Joe has evolved over the years, his guitar usually stays the same—”Blue,” which used to belong to his guitar teacher, is an inanimate celebrity at Green Day shows and serves as a reminder of their roots.
2004’s American Idiot was a fiery, politically drenched rock opera that was Billie Joe’s most ambitious project. Playing the album onstage required a different kind of performance from the veteran rockers. It’s not like they’d edged away from politics in the past, but the content of the songs injected more rage and meaning to Billie Joe’s performance (that meant more screaming, more cursing, and more middle fingers… which also seemed therapeutic for the singer). The added intricacies of the five-part “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming” required a new set-up, which welcomed extra touring musicians to the mix, making Armstrong not only a singer and guitar player, but a true bandleader. The longer jams challenged him to push past the comfort of a quick punk track and captivate the audience through songs that would sometimes extend to 15 minutes.
In 2010, the musical adapted from Armstrong’s American Idiot made its way to Broadway with a full cast performing songs from the album. Billie Joe made a few appearances as St. Jimmy, requiring him to ditch the power stance he was used to and learn full choreography. He nailed the part, exaggerating his facial expressions and telegraphing his punk idol character all for the sake of drama.
In 2017, with nearly 30 years as a band behind them, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Green Day could quit now and have a full, prosperous career to look back on. But that’s not Billie Joe’s style. He can still channel the vigor of those 924 Gilman days, while continuing to adapt his stage presence for Green Day's newest music. In footage from earlier this year, you can see Armstrong might even more energy than he did 10 years ago, bouncing, screaming and raging for thousands of fans. Now, a Green Day show is more about gunning through decades’ worth of hits more than answering every heckler.
Green Day’s getting ready to kick off their tour March 1 in Phoenix, touring the world through the end of summer. And with a band that’s ever-evolving, you should probably scoop up tickets, so you can say, “I was there when…”
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