You can't get further from today's milquetoast, Wal-Mart-approved punk than Greg Graffin. As Bad Religion's frontman, Graffin's songs are hooky, but never wussy. For 25 years, both musically and politically, he and his band have attacked and regrouped and attacked again. Now, with his first solo release under his own name, he proves that he doesn't need a distortion pedal to kick out the jams.
Graffin's Cold as the Clay is a blend of original ballads and traditional folk songs dating back 100 years. It's filled with old-time instruments like acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. Yet, his songs still hit with the impact of a sledgehammer.
To fill out his set at live shows, Graffin is pairing Cold as the Clay tracks with some folk versions of Bad Religion classics.
"There aren't many folk fans at the show-it's 99-percent Bad Religion fans," he says. "So part of the focus has been to point out these folk songs aren't much different than my songs with Bad Religion. In fact, most of the Bad Religion songs start on acoustic piano."
In small clubs, Graffin has been playing anything from The Grey Race's "Cease" to "Sorrow" (from Process to Belief) to Against the Grain's "God Song." For some fans, it's shocking and wrong. For others-especially fans who've aged with the band and have come to appreciate music not played at breakneck speed-these versions are inspired.
The seeds for Graffin's folk revival were planted when his Bad Religion bandmates cajoled him into playing "Cease" on acoustic piano in front of an audience for the band's Live at the Palladium DVD. The audience loved it, which convinced Graffin that this could work on a larger scale.
Punk elitists may cringe. But from the opening harmonic blare of "Don't Be Afraid to Run" to the closing Graffin harmony with Jolie Holland on "One More Hill," Graffin's Woody Guthrie turn is pitch-perfect.
His politics were always Woody's, anyway. Now his sound is, too.
Cold as the Clay has had such an impact that even Bruce Springsteen has jumped on the folk-revival bandwagon with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. (Note: This is a lie-Bruce came out with his album first. But let's give someone other than the Boss some credit for once).
"Obviously it's another example of the Boss copying me," Graffin says with a wink. "Actually, I never knew that record was coming out. But it is interesting that they were both released around the same time. Maybe the listening public is so tired of songs formulated on a computer that they need to hear acoustic, stripped-down songs. Maybe it is a trend."
The Boss' sessions aren't nearly as raw as Graffin's-Cold as the Clay has no overdubs and was mostly tracked in single takes-but the two projects do bear some striking similarities. They're earnest yet loose, gentle yet forceful. Both have political messages concealed in old-fashioned storytelling. And, not surprisingly, the two albums are informed by a man who inspired both: John Steinbeck.
"I like the aesthetic of the Steinbeck tradition, but I doubt even Steinbeck would have purported to have been carrying a flag. He was just reporting what he saw," says Graffin. "I like his aesthetic and like his style, but I feel if I believe that I'm actually carrying a flag, it puts too much pressure on the creative process. I don't want to try to become some sort of political or socio-economic icon. That's something for the annalists and the historians to decide, not the artists."