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Brian Baker was fortunate to have so much musical experience before he joined hard-core punk-rock act Bad Religion.

Baker replaced founding member Brett Gurewitz, whose lead and rhythm guitar work shaped the band's melodic hard-core sound, for the band's last tour and for its new album, "The Gray Race." But Baker is no stranger to punk and hard-core, having been in legendary Washington, D.C., hard-core groups Minor Threat and Dag Nasty."It's hard to believe what a big deal people have made over this," he said in a recent telephone interview. "It's nice to know they were so fond of Brett, but the only real change in the band is that (singer Greg Graffin) is writing all the songs now."

Gurewitz left the band in late 1994 to spend more time with his Epitaph Records imprint - home of Rancid and the Offspring - and to concentrate on his new band, the Daredevils. That led some fans to despair, since Gurewitz wrote some of the band's signature songs, such as the hits "21st Century Digital Boy" and "Infected."

They shouldn't have worried. Stronger than ever, Bad Religion is headlining a Saturday, May 18, concert at the Saltair Pavilion.

In fact, the personnel changes have given the band a spark, says Greg Hetson, the band's other guitarist.

"Brian is exactly what we needed," said Hetson, who also participated in the conference call. "He knew enough not to try to change what Brett wrote, but at the same time, he's really giving the songs a real punch."

Both Baker and Hetson also credit former Cars leader Ric Ocasek, who produced the band's latest effort. Ocasek helmed Weezer's debut album, as well as "Rock For Light," the pivotal release by punk-metal-reggae act Bad Brains.

"(Ocasek) really brought everything into focus. I don't think we've ever sounded better," Hetson said.

Baker agreed, saying that Ocasek helped him make the transition easier.

"Thanks to him, I feel like these songs are really mine," Baker said. "He recognized what my strengths were and helped shape the songs around that."

Opening the show at 7:30 p.m. will be California pop/hard-core act Unwritten Law, whose new album was produced by Bad Religion's Greg Graffin. Punk-ska act Dancehall Crashers are also on the bill.

Advance tickets are $15, plus a service charge, from all Smith'sTix outlets. The concert is a United Concerts production.