MANHATTAN, NY—Bad Brains was the granddaddy of the afro-punk movement. The four-piece band from Washington, D.C. started as a jazz fusion band, but then joined the punk rock movement in the late 1970s. Once exposed to reggae music, the group incorporated this music in the set as well. By the time the London-born Paul Hudson, aka H.R. (Human Rights), joined the band, Bad Brains was alternating between hardcore punk and reggae songs during the live shows. The unrestrained fury of the shows often went out of control, and Bad Brains was banned from many local clubs.
The group relocated to New York for a time. The music became heavier and funkier. Bad Brains split apart and reunited several times, and recorded nine studio albums. A converted Rastafarian, H.R. left (and rejoined) Bad Brains four times to record reggae albums, the most recent being 2007’s Hey Wella, but he always remained the iconic figurehead of the band.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bad Brains put on some of the most intense concerts anyone could catch. The band was the leading hardcore punk act because of the ferocity of the live set. H.R. was a wild man, spitting out harsh vocals while flying off the stage. The H.R. that headlined at The Studio At Webster Hall tonight seems like a different man.
It was a mild winter night, and he came on stage wearing more layers of clothing than necessary. Years ago H.R. was a high-energy, threatening fireball, but tonight he barely moved one step all night, aside from a slight bounce to the reggae and funk music played by his three-piece band, The Dubb Agents. His movements were very slow and stiff, as if these sways were the extent of his mobility. He often offered a beautiful smile to his cheering audience, but he did not speak except to announce a few songs. His voice, both speaking and singing, was feeble and barely audible. There seemed to be a medical or mental health issue here. Has H.R. suffered a stroke or other debilitating condition?
The show featured a couple of more rocking numbers at the end, but no punk or hardcore music, and it seemed that tonight’s H.R. could not have handled that anyway. Can H.R. make a comeback—physically and musically?