|Photo courtesy of Metropolis Records|
Last night was Andy Gill's moment of truth.
As Punk/Post-Punk moves into an awkward middle age, it is not uncommon to find several legendary bands from the late '70s/early '80s following in the footsteps of the generation before them and hitting the nostalgia circuit with only one original member in tow. Hell, if The Yardbirds can get away with touring with only one founding member, then why can't The Misfits? This is apparently the attitude driving the actions of what is being called “Gang of Four” these days. Although the band's beloved original lineup made a triumphant return at Coachella in 2005 (an event I had the honor of witnessing in person), the ensuing near-decade saw a variety of internal complications whittle the machine down to only Gill. Steering a ship as revered as Gang of Four alone is a tall order for a guy nearly 40 years into his career. The expected thing would be for him to call it day at this point, but the man has diligently (some might say defiantly) carried on with a reconstructed version of the band with three young guns. Naturally, this choice has left 'Gang of One' to face a fairly steep mountain of skepticism from fans and critics alike. Fortunately, this incarnation's recently released album, What Happens Next, has far more peaks than valleys. Of course, Gill is a master producer who's had a considerable hand in crafting a large of number of exceptional albums in recent years (Killing Joke's self-titled 2003 opus immediately springs to mind), so it's no shock that a release generated under his own steam largely succeeds. But can the man pull off this version of Gang of Four live?
Fueled by Gill's biting guitar, the thousand-mile stare of captivating frontman Jon King and the angular Funk of bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham, the original Gang of Four was brilliant in projecting tension onto an audience. But on a Friday night in a (still!) bitterly cold Boston, the tension came from the crowd. “Who the fuck is that? One Direction?” asked/complained a patron next to me as new singer John “Gaoler” Sterry hit the stage. Boston is one of those great cities where music fans of a certain age still come out in droves to celebrate the bands that shaped their pasts – but God help you if you phone in your performance or don't give the people what they want. So what does Gill do? Open his band's set with the first song off his new album. The audience cheered as expected when the band followed it up with 1979's “Not Great Men,” but then went relatively quiet as Gill and Co. launched into “I Parade Myself” off 1995's vastly (and unjustly) ignored Shrinkwrapped. After only three songs, it was clear that Gill had no intention of merely placating the punters. Good for him. At their best, Gang of Four was a confrontational and nonconformist entity. Why change that now?
What Worked: While Burnham will forever be the definitive keeper of the G04 beat, new drummer Jonny Finnegan was stunning. (It certainly helped that the drums were by far the loudest thing in the mix.) In addition to exceeding expectations on classic drum-intensive Gang tracks like “What We All Want” and “To Hell With Poverty,” he vastly improved upon the studio version of the What Happens Next track “Stranded” by giving it the energy and feel it needed to truly breath. He also gave “I Parade Myself” the expressive heaviness that the reformed original lineup failed to achieve when they attempted it live 10 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Gill's playing was exceptional, particularly on the aforementioned “What We All Want.” While there are plenty of things for fans to debate when it comes to the current state of affairs in this band, there is no argument to be had over Gill's talent and inventiveness.
What Didn't: As a vocalist, “Gaoler” has the voice and raw material necessary to properly serve Gang of Four on record. (He's absolutely fantastic on the new album, even though Gill should have used him more on it.) He also sang the old stuff exceptionally well - especially when his tired chords gave him a raspy edge towards the end of the night. However, the man severely lacks onstage charisma. This point was driven home when equipment issues on Gill's end halted the proceedings on more than one occasion. Instead of using this adversity as an opportunity to rise to the occasion and keep the momentum going through genuine frontman between-song skills, “Goaler” simply stopped and stared at Gill like a deer in the headlights. “Gaoler” has it in him to properly lead a show (as evident when he finally perked up during “At Home He's A Tourist,” jumped all over the place and actually used the stage like the instrument it is), but the majority of his physical performance was listless at best. Gang of Four doesn't need to have David Lee Roth up there, but they need someone who is capable of carrying the energy and emotional weight of those classic songs. “Gaoler” is a gifted guy – and this writer is indeed a fan – but he's not there yet. Similar fault can be found with bassist Thomas McNeice, who played flawlessly but failed to project anything that remotely resembled interest or engagement.
(A few years ago, I got into a conversation with former Aerosmith guitarist Rick Dufay on the differences between Joe Perry and Jimmy Crespo. Rick summed it up perfectly: “[Jimmy] played it beautifully and stuff, but he didn't fuck it properly.” There certainly wasn't a lot of aural penetration coming from McNeice's side of the stage in Boston.)
What does it take to expertly play tunes you had no hand in writing? Ask Finnegan and McNeice. What does it take to perform songs with your heart? Ask Allen and Burnham.
If any other band on the planet delivered a gig like this, they would receive a more favorable review. But this is fucking Gang of Four; this stuff really matters. I respect Gill enough to give his work an honest review, for better or for worse. Criticism aside, I'm far from giving up on the Gang of Four of today – not when these new guys exhibit such strong abilities and potential and Gill has the power to produce fascinating music in the here and now. (Don't believe me? Take a listen to “The Dying Rays” off What Happens Next). Those who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge Gang of Four's existence beyond Entertainment! and Solid Gold will probably walk away from a show on this current tour disappointed, but those of us who have long admired Gill's willingness to take the band's sound into new territories – regardless of the risks to his career and reputation – will enjoy an evening with a genuine artist who continues to inspire. If “Damaged Goods” is the pinnacle of Gang of Four in your mind, you should probably stay home. But if you (like me) think “I Will Be A Good Boy” off Songs Of The Free and “Woman Town” off Hard are infinitely more daring and challenging than “Ether” off Entertainment!, Gang of Four circa 2015 is the band for you – especially once they work out their glaringly obvious kinks.
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