Only a week into an ambitious world tour, bassist Michael Davis, guitarist Wayne Kramer, and drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson took to the Bowery stage as the surviving members of the once mighty MC5, proving that they could still kick out the jams with love, humor and passion. One of a select few bands completely defined by the sum of its parts, the untimely passing of vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith over a decade ago effectively ended the MC5 proper. Thus, any attempts to utilize the band moniker could/should be met by healthy doses of skepticism and criticism. With one eye on the music and the other on integrity however, the DKT tour is not crafted as a reunion per se, but rather a celebration of art created many years ago; ably supported by a roster of collaborators, its line-up will change as the tour ventures from the States to Australia and Japan.
31 Dec 1969: Bowery Ballroom New York
Once the tour bus rolled into New York for the two night stand, the majority of vocal chores were handled by Mudhoney’s Mark Arm—a fledgling legend in the annals of grunge—while understated but ultra-cool Marshall Crenshaw contributed a solid rhythm guitar foil to Kramer’s still potent lead work. And speaking of legends, what would a genuine New York gig be without The Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba belting out a song or two? If that wasn’t enough, throw in unpredictable ex-Lemonhead Evan Dando, and the twin gigs encompassed everything from rock and roll revival to theater of the absurd.
Playing before a standing-room-only crowd of loyalists and curiosity seekers, Kramer dusted off his dance moves, (unapologetically borrowed from James Brown back in the day), as well as his Fender Strat, and proceeded to showcase his highly underrated fret board wizardry. He even managed to coordinate a three tiered audience participation sing-a-long that shook the walls. In the meantime, Davis fired up his Precision bass and locked into Thompson’s drumming as if the two had never been apart. Arm’s command of classic MC5 material was impressive, (particularly the dive-in-the-crowd fun of “I Want You”), and Manitoba seemed to be the happiest guy in town as he tore through “Call Me Animal” and “American Ruse”. Even Crenshaw joined the fray with spirited renditions of “Tonight” and “Gotta Keep Movin’”. And then there was Dando: in true “love him or hate him” mode, the former Lemonhead resembled Gumby on a bad acid trip, careening all over the stage with abandon. Take nothing away from his enthusiasm though, and give credit where credit is due—gymnastics aside, Dando’s singing was extremely satisfying, and his version of “Shakin’ Street” was fantastic. The evening’s festivities included a bit of impromptu comedy as well. Just as Brother Wayne cued the crowd into telling him what time it was, Thompson had a drum malfunction, and the collective cry of “Kick out the jams motherfuckers!” had to be put on hold. Once the technical snafu was corrected, the moment was rekindled with a nod and a wink, and the song exploded in electrifying fashion.
So how good was Monday’s show? Damn good, but nowhere close to the second part of the double header…
With a slightly altered set list, and an accompanying two piece brass section, DKT shined anew for nearly two hours. The horn augmentation added layering to the overall sound, (particularly on “Sister Anne”), and the full blown freak-out of “Starship” left everyone pining for The Grande Ballroom back in ‘68. Kramer dazzled once more, as Thompson stretched out into some tremendous rapid fire strafing runs, (the solo on “Skunk” was outstanding), and Davis laid down the bottom effortlessly. Arm and Manitoba were comfortable in their roles again, as was Crenshaw. Even Dando settled down, content to merely sing his parts with a minimum of gyration. Who’d have thought the word “fun” would be used to describe a show paying tribute to the last true rock and roll revolutionaries? But fun is exactly what both nights were, and to say these gigs were special would be an understatement; they were more akin to an eagerly anticipated homecoming, one that was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
Although the past cannot be recreated, it certainly can be revisited, as DKT’s focus is on bringing the music while making up for lost time. With a catalog comprised of a single live recording and a pair of studio albums, the MC5 has reached legendary status more for the crash and burn controversy left in its wake. Before the cloud of socio-political upheaval and protracted legal battles became synonymous with the band however, it was all about the creation of art: making music to liberate the mind and the soul by experiencing all that life had to offer. Davis, Kramer and Thompson may not be at the forefront of the cultural rebellion any longer, but they’re nonetheless back where they belong: on stage together as brothers in arms.
And those three motherfuckers still can kick out the jams…