at the Echo, June 29
Gotta admit this gig didn’t look good. The MC5 released three all-time-great rock albums in three years, the last in 1971, before the band, only in their 20s, dissolved, with nothing nearly as significant heard from any of them since. Rob Tyner, the group’s spectacular be-fro’d chubby cheerleader and lead vocalist, died in 1991. Fred “Sonic” Smith, one of its two guitarists and principal songwriters, passed in 1994. For this world tour on the occasion of nothing in particular, the surviving trio of bassist Michael Davis (D), guitarist Wayne Kramer (K) and drummer Dennis Thompson (T) have augmented themselves with a pretty random crew featuring original grunge star Mark Arm of Mudhoney and perennial underachiever Evan Dando on vocals; journeyman rocker Marshall Crenshaw playing Smith’s guitar parts; and other guests sitting in from city to city. So, an easy call: a weird Motor City karaoke cash-in by three guys trading on their cult following’s generosity, likely dominated by leader Kramer’s showboating (who’ll stop the Wayne, we wondered, now that Smith and Tyner are gone?), with embarrassment all around — for the musicians, for a needlessly tarnished legacy, for ourselves for being suckered again. Let’s skip it.
But we didn’t. Because Davis, Kramer and Thompson have earned, at minimum, the benefit of the doubt. And tonight, they assemble maybe the purest display of rock & roll spirit I’ve ever witnessed; it’s like seeing the way the music was meant to be played, as something capable of being fun and serious, that can be both self-expression and communication, traditional and explorative, able to stretch from the mundane to the cosmic, boundlessly energetic, disciplined but primed for on-the-dime abandon. On and on it goes, with Who-like cataclysms about street rebellion and teenage sex, urban-disaster blues, militant energy manifestoes, two-tissue ballads, jazz codas, space-freedom odysseys, R&B-style call-and-response affirmations. As the show progresses, you realize that the strong, deep, varied and bleeding-heart-on-its-sleeve MC5 songbook, even just competently rendered, would shock an audience used to today’s niche-rock bands’ comparative lack of versatility and emotional-intellectual openness. (Only Soundtrack of Our Lives comes close.) But this outfit, tonight at least, is much more than merely professional: all punch, little paunch. Kramer is a dazzling goofball joy, soloing without looking at his guitar, mugging and preening like his name is Chuck Berry; he even camel-walks at one point. Arm and Dando are two kids geeking out at Rock Fantasy Camp, Arm taking the shoutier and darker songs (including a goose-bumpily on rendition of Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place”) while Dando coos the sweets; when they’re off-mike, they synchronize their maraca shaking. Thompson is awhirl; Davis is taut; the porkpie-hatted Crenshaw is present just the right amount. A few jazz guys from Detroit, including trumpeter Charles Moore (who played on the original record) and trombonist Phil Ranelin, play on half the tunes; they’re great. Some guy plays harmonica on a blues; he’s great. Don Was plays standup bass on “Starship”; he’s great. Everybody is great. Which is why, at the end of the night, Wayne Kramer is able to do something I thought I’d never see in L.A.: He gets a room full of hipsters to sing in three-part round. Completely nuts, and ever nutsier when you imagine what this band of 50-somethings, here working at 60 percent strength, must have been like in their prime. Greatest American rock & rollband ever? Yeah, I think so.
SKINNY PUPPY, TWEAKER
at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater, July 3
Tweaker propulses across a backdrop of changing reds and blues — Suspiria redux — with incredibly precise operatic psychodrama. Of course, you can’t hear the words, but this kind of raucous rock consists mostly of blaming the other guy and how filthy the world is, so no big whoop (their cover of Tones on Tail’s “Movement of Fear” momentarily transcends the loud-quiet-loud).
Gradually, oil-field fires and airplane graveyards from the film Baraka appear alongside fog and lasers as war-torn bodies of children inspire a battle between heart and mind where ultimately neither wins. Skinny Puppy’s ohGr emerges, beaked beast costumed in tatters, his voice sliced and excoriated on delivery — but after all these years offstage, it’s a bit like what Keith Richards remarked to John Fogerty: He’d better start playing Creedence songs lest everyone think Ike Turner wrote “Proud Mary.” The vitriol of “VX Gas Attack” and “Pro-Test” filters out; the gasps of the effects machines mist the audience with vapor and sonic assaults. On keys, cEvin Key rebounds synth tones off the resounding pounding Justin Bennett gives the drums. Klieg lights flood the audience as ohGr’s image is incorporated in CGI visuals (courtesy of Travis Baumann and William Morrison) of rebirth and fire simulcast behind him. Drenched and drenching the front rows with some kind of reddish bodily fluid (possibly hematospermia), ohGr holds a gas mask like a stereoscope, cocooning the stage in police “Do Not Cross” tape, his paroxysmal moves shimmering in the black light. Yet repetition of images without context is such that, were you a neocon who liked industrial music and the war in Iraq . . . two tickets, please! The brain-melting cavalcade of crucifixes/W./flags/Osama/swastikas/Hitler/war-wounded unveils a double standard: Though the artist alleges that certain symbols no longer hold relevance in modern society, he fetishizes those symbols as intensely as a cargo cult operating a ham-radio unit made entirely of bamboo. (David Cotner)
RETURN TO SIN CITY: A TRIBUTE TO
at the Universal Amphitheater, July 10
“Let’s not forget who we are,” advised event organizer Polly Parsons, whose own memories of her C&W revitalizer dad (OD’ed in ’73) are nearly prenatal. Who are we? Apparently she figures we’re folks who hope to make the right choices.
Numerous singers — backed by a crack band stocked with guitarist James Burton (who plucked with Elvis and Gram) and man o’ steel Al Perkins — each essayed a couple of Gram-related tunes. The evening divided into two sets, the Less Famous and the More Famous, with the former receiving the Freshness & Satisfaction Award. A pogoing Johnny Kaplan popped bennies into “Six Days on the Road.” Eastmountainsouth’s Peter Adams lent “Return of the Grievous Angel” his own deep white yearn. Kathleen Edwards lilted the homespun waltz “Juanita.” Jim Lauderdale chugged an ornery “Big Mouth Blues.” Jay Farrar’s “Devil in Disguise” was damned perky. Raul Malo of the Mavericks got the band synchronized with his easy motility on “Close Up All Honky Tonks.” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James felt the essence of “Dark End of the Street.” John Doe’s rough & real duet with Edwards on “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes” was a genuine thrill. And Susan Marshall bull’s-eyed Parsons’ Memphis soul connection with a gutty, wailing “Do Right Woman.”
Steve Earle’s serrated voice cut to the bone on “My Uncle.” Lucinda Willliams, dirging “A Song for You,” didn’t care that Lauderdale had said Parsons “made pain sound so beautiful”; she made beauty sound so painful. Dwight Yoakam overrocked his role and lost dynamics. Norah Jones was Ms. Congenial Neutrality; her duet on “Love Hurts” with the elegantly dramatic Keith Richards demonstrated that maximum lyric delivery doesn’t require maximum pipes. The House of Blues Gospel Choir introduced the Lord into the general hell-raising, only to leave Him dogpiled in a final gangbang of “Ooh Las Vegas.” Sin rules. (Greg Burk)