May 16, 2005
If you think about it really, Gang of Four never went away. Their trademark sound – half-spoken vocals, staccato guitars, hi-hat-heavy dance drumbeats and acrobatic basslines – is, you know, everywhere right now. It’s in the U.K., where Franz Ferdinand took the style mainstream in ‘04 with Bloc Party following this year, and where Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill produced the debut from The Futureheads. It’s in New York, where The Rapture flaunted a couple of near covers on ‘03’s Echoes, which Pitchforkmedia named the best album of that year. It’s in Washington D.C., where everyone is so quick to credit Fugazi for their influence that they forget that bands like Q and not U and The Dismemberment Plan probably couldn’t have done what they did without at least having heard a copy of Entertainment! (one of Fugazi’s acknowledged blueprints) at some point in their lives. It’s in whatever vacuums produced The Killers and The Bravery, and it even pops its head up on recent dancefloor jaunts like Modest Mouse’s “The View” and Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On.” And it’s on record shelves again, thanks to a Rhino reissue of Entertainment!
So with all this confirmation of their greatness, it would be easy to forgive the band for treating their current stateside reunion tour – which I caught May 16 at Boston’s Avalon – like a deserved victory lap or a well-earned pension of sorts. After all, reunions are in right now, and the public at large seems pretty forgiving of any lapses in quality in exchange for seeing that band.
But Gang of Four’s show is so much more than just another in a long line of post-punk and alt-rock reunions. Like Mission of Burma before them, these guys are performing as if their 10-year hiatus (20 years, really, Mall and Shrinkwrapped hardly count) was just a brief rest. They may look like the sketchy barflies you don’t bother when you’re cutting class to have a pint, but they attack the stage with more energy than bands half their age.
They opened with Andy Gill’s angular intro to “Return the Gift.” Vocalist Jon King sauntered onstage just in time for his vocal and, almost immediately, showed off one of the two dances he would feature throughout the evening: he held his hands together high above his head, palms outstretched and crossed, and thrashed his torso as though being humped by a gigantic unseen dog. Immediately, members of the crowd tried to imitate it with varying degrees of success. During their second song, “Less Than Great Men,” he rolled out the other one, which involved him hunching over with his hands on his knees and hopping back and forth across the stage. Gill and bassist Dave Allen similarly ran and leapt, making sure they weren’t rooted to a single spot. The overall effect was one of a cathartic burst of energy. Again, not to belabor the point, but it’s something more bands should try.
The skeptics in the crowd – which, incidentally, literally defined the expression “all ages” – were likely thinking the guys couldn’t keep up that manic level of energy. These folks were proven right to a degree, as three songs in, King disappeared, leaving Gill to sing a rendition of “Paralysed,” the only non-Entertainment! song of the set (including two tracks from the EMI expanded edition.) When he came back (was he getting oxygen backstage?), the band stuck to some of their more droney material, including the feedback-drenched “Anthrax” and the still-relevant politically themed “He’d Send In the Army.” The latter became an unexpected highlight, actually, as King produced the metallic percussion by striking a microwave with an aluminum baseball bat. At the end, King appeared to give up and simply start destroying the thing. Judging by the already beat-up shape of the microwave and the smirk on Allen’s face, it’s entirely possible this was not what was supposed to happen.
The Gang’s set could’ve been filled with b-sides or, more maddeningly, tracks from later album. But these guys knew which side their bread was buttered on, and by sticking to Entertainment!, they ensured that each song would receive a decent ovation, whether it was the sloppy “At Home He Feels Like a Tourist” or the much more rousing “Natural’s Not In It.” They were efficient, only playing for about an hour including encores – again, that age and energy level thing coming into play. The only complaint was probably sequencing; they should’ve finished the night on the alt-dance-club staple “Damaged Goods,” especially since King’s voice was sounding pretty tired by that point. But, there’s something to be said for a cold ending, too, and that’s what they opted for by encoring with “I Found That Essence Rare.”
Gang of Four hit Irving Plaza in NYC on May 18, with shows in D.C. and Philly to follow. If you have the means, get yourself out to one of their shows.