Some drummers chase after “groove;” the elusive ability to play a drum part so well that the collective audience can’t help but bend their knees and wiggle to the left. Others cherish “chops,” a combination of blinding speed and technical proficiency. Mission of Burma’s Peter Prescott seems to have cornered the market on a third, rarely explored, category: the “rumble.” It starts and stops, it lopes and lurches, it speeds up when it needs to and settles back down when it has accomplished what it set out to do. It flails when it should just be cool, but it’s always out on the edge, teetering on being out of control. When Prescott is on, like he is tonight, the whole band is right there, out on the edge, teetering with him.
You can feel the surge in the room; it’s not a shimmy but it’s not assaultive either. His rumble defines Mission of Burma’s highly effective live attack as much as bassist Clint Conley and guitarist Roger Miller. Their elastic conception of verse, chorus, and melody creates space for Prescott to rumble successfully. They’re an incredible band and the parts aren’t interchangeable; it has to be these guys playing together or else it doesn’t work, and that makes them even better.
Tonight, they’re playing to support the reissue of their early records (initially released during the band’s legendary first go-round) and perform in its entirety their debut EP, Signals, Calls, and Marches. (“We’d like to thank Matador for reissuing three records that didn’t sell very well the first time,” Prescott says at one point.) It feels apt that this record should be celebrated in the same way that we imagine it was left; in a sweaty, airless, underground basement performance space. This time, though, there are considerably more people in attendance; more, you imagine, than the band probably ever played to when the EP was first released.
“You all might recall the problems we had playing in Philadelphia in the early ‘80s,” says guitarist Roger Miller, before concluding, “You more than make up for it.” Bassist Clint Conley calls the room a “stew pit,” but he means it affectionately. With temperatures pushing 100 degrees outside and only three small ceiling fans circulating air through the 300 people stuffed inside, that’s as apt a description as anyone could be pressed to come up with on the spot.
They open with songs that would have been scribbled on their set list the first time they toured behind Signals, Calls, and Marches’. These include a particularly powerful “Peking Spring”, plus songs from both sides of their first 7”—“Max Ernst” and “Academy Fight Song”. When they get ready to play “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, loop operator Bob Weston plays a sample of vinyl hiss and pop, drawing a laugh from the band as they tear into their most well-known song and, despite the sweltering humidity, come close to inciting a mosh pit.
They sound amazing throughout and are clearly enjoying themselves. At their best, Mission of Burma is an awe-inspiring live act; loud, physical, and unrelenting in all the best possible ways, but without being lead-footed. It’s easy to forget that Signals, Calls, and Marches is over 25-years old, and as much as the album has served as a touchstone since its release, Mission of Burma sets a similarly high bar as performers.
They close the night with “2wice”, from their similarly stunning 2006 Matador album, The Obliterati. Their continued relevance, cemented by the two excellent albums released since their reunion, is just one thing that separates them from the current crop of groups reuniting around classic albums. Their music, and their performance, is much too timely to ever be confused with nostalgia.