Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 12/11/2018
published: 24 /
Chris O'Toole at the Shepherd's Bush Empire finds founding member Wayne Kramer's supergroup playing superb tribute to the MC5's classic 1968 debut album 'Kick out the Jams' fifty years after it was released.
It would be very easy to be cynical about a venture like this. Some half a century after the initial recording of MC5 classic 'Kick out the Jams' - the legendary live album that came to define the sound of an era - a sole member of the original line-up convenes a group of hired guns to perform the work in its entirety. Now entitled MC50, in honour of the five-decade milestone, the new outfit travels the world taking the victory lap never afforded to the earliest incarnation of the band. Such nostalgia tours are ten-a-penny as the baby boomers seek to relive their youth; but is it really nostalgia if few people experienced it first time around? While the MC5 have reached cult status in the intervening years, 'Kick out the Jams' is still something of a second-tier time-capsule, adored by those who know it, but little-known outside of those circles. In that respect, it is perhaps similar to 'The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the Tombs', the semi-eponymous live album from the much-loved Ohio-based rockers.
Wherever the MC5 imagined the journey might take them, it was unlikely they thought it would be a rainy west London venue on a Monday night in 2018. Though, cynicism or not, the crowd are out in force. Largely white, male and over 40, there is nonetheless a palpable buzz around the Shepherd's Bush Empire before the band take the stage. Wayne Kramer, the sole holdover from the original group, has hired well for the performance, raising expectations. Joining him on lead guitar is Kim Thayil of Soundgarden and more recently Audioslave, while Marcus Durant from Zen Guerilla, eventually, takes lead vocals. Faith No More stalwart Billy Gould is on bass, while Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty completes the line-up. There is plenty to be excited about there, whatever the occasion.
Things start slow. As J.C. Crawford’s rabble-rousing introduction is played through the speakers nobody in the audience looks ready for a revolution – retirement maybe. Kramer takes vocals for opener, 'Ramblin’ Rose', but he will likely be the first to admit he is not a strong singer. The crowd nod along. It takes the all-time classic title-track 'Kick out the Jams' to get the things moving. Playing the album through sequentially might be seen as something of a risk for MC50, with the biggest number so early in the show, but as Durant takes over front man duties things begin come alive. He is a magnetic presence, scissor-kicking his way through the track, screaming into the crowd and offering a decent imitation of original vocalist Rob Tyner. Whatever the history, tonight is his night.
Before heading out on tour, MC50 completed a series of shows at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, location for the recording of the original album on Halloween in 1968. The energy from these performances is recreated here tonight – this is not a loose collection of musicians thrown together for a cash-grabbing tour, but a fully realised band. They are tight, energetic and play the songs in the spirit of the original, though the tracks are stretched to allow a little more time to enjoy them. During the catchily titled 'Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)' Kramer and Thayil come together at the front of the stage for a few moments of dueling guitars. This might have sounded out of place during the pummeling of the original live show, but tonight it works well as both the crowd and the performers pay homage to the MC5.
Outside of the title track, 'Starship' is perhaps the best known MC5 song, stretching on for more than eight minutes in a woozy haze typical of the late 1960s. Here it closes the first section of the show in a dazzling crescendo, with the band joining forces to give the album a fitting send off. Any cynicism has been dispelled by this point, with the band acquitting themselves spectacularly, evoking the spirit of the original from all those years ago. For the encore, support act Michael Monroe (originally of glam punk band Hanoi Rocks) joins on sax for versions of 'Sister Ann' and 'Let me Try' before the MC50 close with 'Looking at You' from 1970 album 'Back in the USA'. While there was a pretty sharp drop off in the popularity of the band after the initial burst of excitement, the tracks selected tonight show the later albums are ripe for reappraisal.
'Kick Out the Jams', then, is recognised as the galvanising live document that introduced a major voice of late 1960s counterculture. It went on to prove incomparably influential on metal, punk, stoner rock and almost every other form of loud, limitless, long-haired music to come. MC5 endure to this day as icons of an era. While the politics might have been somewhat diluted, with the audience this evening looking older and somewhat lacking in political zeal, the music still fizzes with energy all these years later. A fitting tribute to one of the most indispensable albums of its time.