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Pink Flag Burning 

Thursday, Jun 26 2003
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Photos by Wild Don Lewis

WIRE at Spaceland, June 21

The collapse of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival seemed more a blessing than a curse when several of the event’s most important bands subsequently arranged shows at a few more intimate and sympathetic spaces around town. The fiery return of a recharged Wire at Spaceland benefited enormously from the venue change.

This highly respected art-aligned “punk” combo emerged from the London uprising circa 1977, and from the start were a band that saw the punk revolution as possibility; even their debut album, Pink Flag, loaded with close to two dozen extremely brief blasts of punk-song attitude, merely exploited the punk form seemingly because it was there. Yet they immediately abandoned that framework on subsequent albums, such as Chairs Missing and 154, incorporating such punk-abhorred items as lush keyboards, aircraft-hangar-huge guitar textures and random electronics, though with an encoded pop melodicism, particularly in guitarist-singer Colin Newman’s songs. Wire are an organic art unit that comes together when all its members’ mental regions happen to meet; they’ve gone on long sabbaticals to devote time to their less rock-oriented, mostly electronic-oriented solo projects, re-imagining themselves periodically as the tenor of the times dictates.

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Spaceland’s small main room was the ideal setting to hear the ferocious assault of the lean-again 2003 metal machine that has always potentially been Wire. The space was packed with an interesting cross section of young and old, some probably longtime fans reveling in nostalgia for their halcyon art-punk days, youthful others perhaps drawn by the extravagant critical praise for Wire’s two recent “comeback” EPs, Read and Burn 01 and 02, or those discs’ repackaging as Send. We saw four very plainly dressed middle-aged men, none of whom smiled as such, hit the stage in a businesslike manner and proceed to shred. What Wire shredded this night was a mixture of bits and pieces from the recent EPs as well as a large hunk of the infamous Pink Flag album, mostly, though much of the time you’d have been hard-pressed to determine what was what: Wire, having recently decided to re-investigate the innate capacity and intonation of nothing but hashing bassdrumsguitarhowl, chose their most searing and feral tunes only to tear them to scraps, all their trimmed fat stoking the flames.

The close, confining feel of the room served to further condense and heighten the violence of the band’s primal assault. Newman yelled in that melodious cockney way of his; rather macho bassist Graham Lewis plucked rudely and looked as pissed off as always, like he wants to punch you; guitarist Bruce Gilbert played with his back to the crowd and supplied screech and clang and a surprising rhythmic punch on the upstrokes; and drummer Robert Grey — perhaps the greatest “punk” drummer/metronome of them all — supplied the cogent, insistent snare thump that is no doubt the group’s most identifiable sound.

No muss, no fuss, just a lot of renewed commitment, a death to Pink Flag, and the birth of a new and better art-war machine. And a crowd of old fans and many new believers — battered senseless — dazedly stumbling into the cold night, the scent of singed flesh in the air . . .

NICK CAVE at the Palladium, June 18

Between his pug nose, pale skin, perma-mullet and early-stage male-pattern baldness, Nick Cave isn’t in the running for prettiest front man in rock. He fully inhabits what God gave him, though, and there’s something beautiful in that. Ugliness as beauty is the key to the success of Cave’s songs. His rumbling voice slips off pitch like an overconfident Elvis. He kicks and scowls. And, unlike most mass-media depictions of love, his work acknowledges our mess.

Let’s look at these competing versions back to back. Take, for example, a Hollywood movie versus a Cave song. In the movie, two people fall in love to weeping violins. In the Cave song, two people fall in love to Bad Seed Warren Ellis’ screeching, weeping, overwrought fiddle, then fall out of love to a pizzicato string attack that brings to mind the crack of rebar under stress. “This began as a love song, but it quickly grew fangs,” Cave said, announcing one such number, “West Country Girl.” What followed was one of his brighter lyrics: “Her widow’s peak/her lips I’ve kissed/ . . . Her glove of bones at her wrist/That I have held in my hand.”

At the Palladium, you realized this wasn’t a melodramatic, proto-goth fantasy, but an apt description of the people Cave likes to hang with. Six of the seven Bad Seeds were clad entirely in black, as was most of the audience. Happy people these were not. And pasty too — either they’re an antisocial lot or all the dark clothes make them avoid the sunlight. These were some lonely souls; the Palladium’s security detail was there to help, thank God, offering disturbingly intimate full-body pat-downs to anyone wishing to come through the venue’s doors. (Alec Hanley Bemis)

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