MC50 at 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids, Michigan, September 22, 2018.
Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there … I want everybody to kick up some noise, I wanna hear some revolution … Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution! You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that its time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify. And I want to know – are you ready to testify? Are you ready!! I give you a testimonial. THE MC5!!
As Brother J.C. Crawford’s ghostly, prerecorded invocation echoed in our ears, Wayne Kramer welcomed his audience (including me, my older brother, and my friends from high school and college) with a giant grin, a wicked riff from his Stars and Stripes Stratocaster, and the unmistakable, hyped-up grind of “Ramblin Rose.” Surfing a bone-shaking wave of sound, Kramer joyously belted out a raucous vocal, reeling off exhilarating solo licks on the Strat between verses. Almost 50 years after Detroit’s original punks recorded their live debut album Kick Out the Jams, the evening already promised to live up to the MC5’s formidable legend.
“Kick Out the Jams” itself quickly followed, with Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant taking over on vocals, channeling MC5 singer Rob Tyner’s throaty, soulful delivery, stoking us up to dance and shout along. On this and “Come Together”, Kramer locked in with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil for a meaty twin guitar punch a la Fred “Sonic” Smith; meanwhile, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty laid down deep irresistible grooves, vibrating human bodies and rattling the concrete floor. This was hard rock honed to a keen point — recklessly idealistic, the barbaric yawp of youth refined by decades of hard knocks, dearly bought wisdom, revived dedication to craft and killer instinct. Plus the obvious determination to give the crowd a good time.
Back in 1968, the Five’s reworking of John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City Is Burning” was an eerily potent comment on the recent Detroit riots that prophesied further apocalypse. In 2018, it still smoldered with pungent blues sensibility — flaring up, threatening to catch fire again. But that was just the warm-up: “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)”, “Borderline” and “I Want You Right Now” were the main event we’d waited for. Kramer, windmilling and pinwheeling at stage left like a man possessed, belying his 70 years; Durant pleading, demanding, bemoaning and celebrating the torments and triumphs of passion; Thayil, Gould and Canty in constant, hypnotic ebb and flow. In brief, ecstatic flashes, it felt like we were back at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, where the MC5 delivered the lovechild of The Who and James Brown, the walls of the city shook, and leaders of town, state and country conspired to take down “those people” by any means necessary.
And then, the album finale “Starship”– the original band’s love letter to free jazz, a shotgun union of Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra. As on record, here it devolved from recognizable psychedelia to an extended squall of dissonance, complete with Durant’s extended saxophone neckpipe solo. (As my brother, who had seen the original Five in 1969, said afterwards, “‘Starship’ was too long — but ‘Starship’ was always too long.”) If you ever wondered where The Mars Volta came from …
But when you’ve played through one of the most influential albums in rock history, what do you do afterwards? You could argue we’d already heard three distinct bands that night — hard and heavy pioneers, blues/rock/soul showmen, avant-garde edge-riders. The rest of the set added a fourth band to the mix, as the first MC5 single (a cover of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything”) and most of 1969’s Back in the USA (“High School”, “Shakin’ Street”, “Tonight”, “Call Me Animal”) built up to another revelation. Disdained by the hippie establishment as sell-outs and by the music industry as talentless louts back in the day, the Five really had been an organic part of rock history, the true missing link between Little Richard and The Ramones. I mean, really: Green Day’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the group responsible for these blistering slabs of genius aren’t? It figures.
The audience (smaller than I’d expected, 500 or less, but a hardy group spanning the generations) didn’t pause to worry about the injustices of hagiography, though. They ate up the whole night, swooning over the delicate, seductive soul of the first encore, “Let Me Try”, then turning 20 Monroe Live’s main floor into a careening moshpit for the closer, “Looking at You.” As throughout the night, Wayne Kramer was beaming for the final bow. And well he should: having survived and overcome the implosion of the New Left, substance abuse, a life of petty crime and prison time, Kramer and the MC50 are delivering the goods like never before. The show in Grand Rapids made a conclusive case for the music Kramer helped create and still dearly loves — an inescapable influence on the cultural outsiders that followed in the MC5’s wake, visceral and vibrant in its own right, continuing to resonate today.
- Ramblin’ Rose
- Kick Out the Jams
- Come Together
- Motor City Is Burning
- Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)
- I Want You Right Now
- I Can Only Give You Everything
- High School
- Shakin’ Street
- Call Me Animal
- Let Me Try
- Looking at You
Also, check out Anthony Norkus’ complete photo gallery of the show:
— Rick Krueger