Saturday, March 12, 2022

"Our Future Was in the Past:" Does the Andy Gill-Less Gang of Four Measure Up?

Gang of Four, 2022. (Photo by Jason Grow)

Nostalgia, it's no good.

Our future was in the past.”

- Gang of Four, “It Is Not Enough” (1982)

With the bands that comprised the original Punk/Post-Punk era now firmly entrenched in middle age (or beyond), those acts still pushing to make a go of it in the present tense often trade on – and succumb to – the public’s notion that “original” automatically means “authentic.” There are scores of bands out there attempting to add a few more years to their careers by blowing the dust off their back catalogs and hitting clubs and festivals without a single new note to be heard. Sure, such activities tug at nostalgic heartstrings and help keep the bills paid, but it’s more than a bit disheartening to witness once creative and forward-thinking entities rely so heavily on past glories to keep the train rolling.

Late Gang of Four guitarist/co-founder Andy Gill was keenly aware of this fact. When original singer Jon King jumped ship following 2011’s Content, Gill kept the band – already beleaguered by decades’ worth of breakups, reunions and personnel disruptions – going for several more years as its sole original member. While his output during this era wasn’t always perfect, his steely resolve to keep Gang of Four alive and churching out new sounds for nearly a decade past the group's reasonably expected expiration date was admirable. (It also yielded downright extraordinary results at times; check out “The Dying Rays” – one of Gill’s greatest songwriting victories – off 2015’s What Happens Next.)

Of course, the marketplace is rarely kind to a veteran act – especially one comprised almost entirely of unfamiliar faces – that is determined to make new music. When Gill’s incarnation of Gang of Four played Boston in 2016, they served as second fiddle on a “co-headlining” bill with The Faint – and didn’t even appear on the marquee outside the venue. The harsh reality that late-period Gang of Four never truly captured the public’s imagination was made even sadder when considering that the band absolutely fucking smoked that night. It was only upon Gill’s death in February 2020 that the masses truly embraced the fact that he had remained a thriving creative force right until the very end. Stripping away the original band's long-running internal squabbles (which, in truth, are nobody’s damn business except theirs anyway) and taking sonic integrity alone into account, there’s no question that Gill earned his place as the keeper of the Gang of Four ethos during the years he ran the show.

This brings us to 2022 and the band called Gang of Four that is currently on tour and played last Sunday at the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville, MA. King is back at the mic, and the drum stool is again occupied by original timekeeper Hugo Burnham. Veteran bassist Sara Lee, who played on 1982’s Songs Of The Free (my all-time favorite Gang of Four record, for what that’s worth) and 1983’s Hard, is back as well. David Pajo, best known for his time with late ’80s/early ’90s cult heroes Slint, is on guitar. That is quite an impressive assemblage of musicians, but does it measure up to the Gang of Four legacy?

Well, yes and no.

First of all, without Gill, nothing presented under the name “Gang of Four” would ever feel complete. But since the band has no choice in that matter, what any of us could ever hope for is something that preserves the man’s spirit and contributions. That’s exactly what the sold-out crowd in Somerville got from Pajo, who stepped into Gill’s formidable shoes and delivered the second-best option any Gang of Four fan could experience. An incredibly innovative player in his own right (check out his Bandcamp for a slew of treasures), Pajo brought honor and respectability to his role, perfectly reproducing Gill’s sonic presence while incorporating enough of his own stylings to add something fresh to the proceedings. (I’d like to think that Gill – never one to stay in one creative space for too long – would have viewed the injection of Pajo’s musical ingenuity into the Gang of Four sound with an approving nod.) Additional kudos to the guy for not aping Gill’s signature stage moves – a wince-inducing trait that is far too common among replacement performers. (I’m looking at you, Paul Rodgers.)

Here’s a sentence that I would never type lightly: David Pajo is the guitarist for Gang of Four.

Fucking stellar.

While fully acknowledging the logistical constraints the band surely faced in light of a pandemic and the general demands of prepping for a tour (including figuring out the merch; more on that later), I must say that the lack of any new material in the band’s set was a letdown. Sure, the band’s recent 77-81 box set has duly earned a Grammy nomination and everybody loves the old stuff, but this band deserves better than to exist as a mere nostalgia act – especially with a powerhouse like Pajo in tow. Gill would have undoubtedly given us something fresh to digest had he been able to bring Gang of Four to the stage in the here and now, and his unwavering devotion to such progress is sorely missed. Say what you will about the group’s songs post-King, but they at least existed.

This current band will never truly be Gang of Four until it has something new to offer.

That said, the Somerville gig was magnificent. Forty-five years after the band’s formation, Gang of Four delivered a performance that shook off the shackles of tragic loss and internal fractures and celebrated the true magic of its classic material. The sixtysomething King was in brilliant form, practically sweating out his full body weight while thrusting himself around the stage as the team of Burnham and Lee expertly anchored his menace. In addition to playing the requisite material off 1979’s Entertainment! and 1981’s Solid Gold, the band showcased a few tunes off Songs Of The Free (including a pristine rendition of “Call Me Up”), brought out “Capital (It Fails Us Now)” off 1982’s Another Day/Another Dollar during the encore and even gave a nod to their ‘90s discography via the inclusion of “I Parade Myself” off 1995’s underrated Shrinkwrapped. Best of all, the band members clearly enjoyed themselves. (Smiles? On stage at a Gang of Four show??!! Why the hell not???!!!)

The coolest highlight? The proud look on Burnham’s face as his daughter, Ts, sang backing vocals at various points throughout the set in a “Black Lives Matter”- emblazoned outfit.

I’ve written about Gang of Four more than any other band in my career; this music means the world to me. As an eternal member of Team Andy, I offer these words directly to the current band:

Thank you so very much for doing this tour. It’s so lovely to experience these songs again in a live setting when I thought that possibility had been lost forever. This music matters so much. You’ve made the absolute right choice with Pajo. Please keep this going and write some new shit! My best wishes to you all. And as always, my deepest fondness and respect for your fallen musical partner.

Bonus Fun Fact: A few months back, I suggested to Hugo that Gang of Four should sell band-branded condoms "for our top left pockets." (Some of you will get that reference, surely). Well, not only did they use my idea, but Hugo hooked me up before the gig. I told him the band needs to hire me full time for the next tour!


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