When Refused tickets were announced, a good portion of my friends pooped their pants. At the time of the Denver show announcement, I was mainly just bummed that OFF! wasn’t listed as support, as they had been on other dates. My curiosity was piqued but, frankly, I’d never gotten into the band as I navigated the annals of punk rock over the years. Most times I’d heard Refused, I was never really drawn in. So, I purchased my ticket to, basically, see what all the fuss was about. Was Refused worth all the excitement, hype and press?
I was pretty stoked to find that The Bronx, a band I also knew little about but about whom I’d heard great things, was tapped to open the show and, as I walked in the Ogden to see their giant King Kong backdrop and took a spot at the balcony railing, I was getting pretty excited about a night of exposure to new, unseen bands. Luckily, The Bronx didn’t disappoint. A band high on energy, they mix in a heavy dose of southern rock swagger with their hardcore, more-so than I was expecting, and the riffs were tight and rollicking. Singer Matt Caughthran’s voice, a powerful, raging scream, rattled the PBR cans throughout the house and he had some pretty sweet moves, a blend of The Breakfast Club and hardcore dancing, which somehow fit in perfectly with the grooves laid down by the band. About halfway through the set, he paused to give a great analogy about The Bronx being the appetizer and Refused being the main course. When asked if they were hungry, the crowd replied with a resounding roar. Then, adding to the build-up of excitement in the room, he left the stage to reside in the crowd for the last two songs while the band kept up the assault on stage. It was pretty rad where, from my vantage point on the balcony, I could still track his movements, albeit sporadically, from all the camera flashes going off in the audience. He even made it all the way to the 2nd level on the floor, immersed in a group that was more than happy to rock along for the close of The Bronx’s set.
Fast forward to the stage lights dropping while the house lights remained up. Of course, a cheer went up from the crowd but it was slightly premature as the crew still made some last-minute adjustments. It was only as people in the front row started taking pics that I could see a black cloth with Refused cut into it. A brief shadow puppet show played across the front, courtesy of some silly concert-goers, and then the house lights dropped as well while moving lights splayed from the back and slowly lowered until the band’s name was backlit and bathed in white light. A droning orchestral string soundscape slowly gained in volume (a theme which continued throughout the set with samples interspersed between songs), culminating in a kickass kabuki drop, heralding the band on stage as they launched into their first song.
The first thing I noticed, aside from the crowd going apeshit, was the care taken to design the overall show. The lighting was top-notch, with each band member backlit by groupings of Par lights. Unlike The Bronx, who were bathed in color, Refused were starkly lit in white light; perfectly accenting their angular, post-hardcore freak-out. During that first song, each band member had a solo section and the stage would blackout minus the lighting for whichever member was taking their turn displaying some impressive musicianship.
It wasn’t until the third song that the band actually became front lit and Denver got its first real look at Refused. The band was certainly fun to watch, especially the stage left guitarist, resplendent in a blue suit that, given his large frame, made him look like a Mafia goon. He looked like Dan Akroyd in Blues Brothers since his dance moves leaned toward that stiff, revival-tent shimmy. He was also the band member who spastically shouted out most of the lyrics while playing, an enthusiastic trait I love in musicians not tethered in front of a microphone. Of course, though, the main spectacle was singer Dennis Lyxzén. On top of his monster vocals and endless movement, he performed like a punk rock James Brown; dancing across the stage during instrumental breaks. At one point, he stacked two of the monitor wedges center stage and climbed atop them, orchestrating the audience from on high. He might also be the best mic thrower I’ve ever seen; beating out Roger Daltry in overall skill and creativeness (he threw the mic up, dropped to his back and caught the mic with his body) and making that guy from Taking Back Sunday look like a second-rate imitator. Now I see where that dude aped his moves.
At the band’s first set break, they took a moment to dedicate “Rather Be Dead” to the women in Pussy Riot. Their solidarity with the jailed rockers was displayed all night, in fact, since “Free Pussy Riot” was scrawled on the front of the kick drum. They also took time to address their comeback during another break between songs. Lyxzén apologized “that it took 20 years to get here” and said, “If we had played here in the 90’s, there would have been 20 of you”. I should note that it was pretty amazing to watch the crowd from above, seeing the sea of people sway and collide. Most die-hard fans of a band, at least the bands that fill theatre venues, have been there from the beginning, supporting their favorite artist from their days in dingy bars and clubs. In this case, it’s true that just about everyone that evening was seeing the band for the first time, having listened to and revered Refused’s albums in abstract. As such, when the band began “Summer Holiday From The Punk Routine”, the crowd exploded into a writhing mass of euphoric release and it was easy to hear their collective wailing over the band.
Refused powered through their set; impressing me more and more with the tightness and skill in their musicianship and the ferocity of their performance. Any claims that the band is in the reunion game for an easy cash grab can be put to rest. These guys were definitely not phoning in their performance and were dripping sweat by the time they left the stage. Of course, the crowd didn’t budge as they knew more music lay ahead. Shortly, Lyxzén returned to the stage and opened up the encore. When the band kicked in behind him, they were drenched in oozing red light; the first addition of color to the well-choreographed lighting design. The band claimed that they had spent the previous two weeks “training” in Denver at altitude and I’d definitely believe it, as they lost no momentum over the course of the last few songs. In fact, Lyxzén performed his best dance move toward the end of the show, doing a backward somersault into a split. The crowd, of course, went absolutely nuts. By the end of one of the last songs, he was rolling on the floor; laughing joyously at the reception the band received. I was amazed at how long the crowd stayed to applaud the tireless Swedes at the close of their set, a show of adulation I haven’t seen for a band in a long time. Refused gathered center stage, all smiles, and took one final collective bow before leaving the crowd stunned, destroyed, and sure that they had just witnessed a momentous event; the day that Refused finally came to Denver, leaving little doubt as to why, no matter how many imitators may miss the point, the originals will always remain.