The last time I saw Wire live, touring behind 2003’s Send, it was a far sterner affair. They basically refused to play any older material until the encores, and the one glimpse we had of a song from their classic late ‘70s albums (a stirring, deafening rendition of “Lowdown”) wasn’t brought out until the very last song. Around the same time, they ‘retired’ Pink Flag by playing it in its entirety at a show in England and I figured that was it. I didn’t really mind—the show I saw was profoundly impressive in its sonic brutality and aggression, and a lot of the Send era material works a bit better live than on record.
I have no idea if Bruce Gilbert’s departure had something to do with it, but I was a little surprised to encounter a much more immediately ingratiating Wire this time around. Touring guitarist Margaret Fiedler McGinnis ably filled Gilbert’s shoes (both in the ‘hellacious racket’ sense and the ‘stoic deadpan’ one) and their sound certainly isn’t any less assaultive, but from the cheerful demeanor of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis to a setlist balanced neatly between old and new songs and some honest-to-god stage banter, this was a far more user-friendly evening. The band’s prowess hasn’t diminished a jot—Fiedler McGinnis is a great choice as the live lead guitarist, Lewis in particular almost throttles his bass guitar in the heat of the moment, and Robert Gotobed (who I believe is going by Gray, his real name again) hasn’t lost any of his imperturbable strength, suppleness, and consistency on drums. Newman still sings most of the songs and his almost impish delight on ramming them down our (willing) throats was kind of heartwarming in an odd way.
This is still Wire, mind you, and as early as the first oldie—which saw Lewis bellowing “you’re being sucked in again” fiercely enough at the crowd that I wondered whether he wasn’t noting his displeasure at being asked to retread old ground—they still provided the same prickliness so essential to their perpetual mix of braininess and gut-level impact. As with many long-running acts I actually think their new material was among the strongest songs live, particularly “Mekon Headman” and “Perspex Icon”, two of the best tracks from the new Object 47. The latter saw Newman substituting straightforward chanting on the chorus for the more sing-song rhythm he uses on record, and that shift towards the more blunt propulsive force was found throughout the show, particularly on already-shouty songs like “106 Beats That”, “The Agfers of Kodack”, and the closing “12XU” that Lewis and Newman seemed to take perverse delight in playing and singing so fast the songs literally blurred in our ears.
Most striking about Wire live circa 2008, however, is the number of encores. The crowd, it’s true, was rabidly into the band, recognizing every song and going nuts whenever they dipped into the back catalogue (even for a relatively hard to place song like “Underwater Experiences”), and thus kept up the clapping and chanting whenever Wire went backstage until they came back. But still, even in a live environment where an encore is practically de rigueur, seeing three is cause for occasion. I would have been perfectly content with the main set, still recovering from a pitch perfect run through “The 15th” that was faithful to the original but put some real meat on it’s bones. When they broke into the immortal “Pink Flag”, including a firestorm lodged in the middle that (while obviously not nearly as intense) made me think briefly of My Bloody Valentine’s infamous ‘Holocaust’ barrage during “You Made Me Realise”, I was fully satisfied. Having them come out twice more and play four more songs, including an almost inhumanly vicious “12XU” was more than gravy—it marked, in my experience at least, Wire’s transition from the willfully difficult band that made Document & Eyewitness to one that has fully learned the art of keeping a crowd going without losing any of their edge.