Roy Jurgens on
For a 50-year-old act that just got dissed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the sixth time, Wayne Kramer’s reconstituted MC5 can still kick out the mothereffing jams. A colorful tapestry of ages and faces bore witness to a spirited 90-minute set at the Roxy Theatre on Saturday night.
In front a backdrop emblazoned “We Are All MC5,” Kramer and his cohorts played tracks from their limited catalog of three albums, recorded frenetically between 1969 and 1971, as well as a new single, “Heavy Lifting”, co-written with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. The single is off a new Bob Ezrin-produced album “American Ruse,” that is still in the works.
The list of ex-bandmates on the MC5’s Wikipedia page is vast and star-studded. What the current lineup lacks in name recognition, they make up for in chops. Native American guitar icon Stevie Salas has been around for decades, lending his talents to Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Justin Timberlake, as well as a five-year stint as the music director at “American Idol.” Bassist Vicki Randle was the first woman in “The Tonight Show” band and toured and recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples and Herbie Hancock. Janes Addiction’s Stephen Perkins was set to fill in on drums, but had to bow out for personal reasons. In stepped long time Bob Dylan alum Winston Watson. Bay Area legend and lead vocalist Brad Brooks delivers a sort of Peter Wolf vibe (J. Geils Band) to his frontman persona.
“Some bands take six months between albums, some bands take two years between albums,” Kramer explained, “We take 50.” Kramer found himself restless and despairing after four year of Trump and the pandemic, so he began writing with Brooks. Soon Kramer was collaborating with the likes of Morello, Kesha, Alejandro Escovedo and Tim McIlrath of Rise Against. “American Ruse” will be released this fall.
Ever the fervent spokesman and true to the band’s legacy, Kramer made an appeal late in the show for the audience to become more politically engaged, warning that the fascists were at the gates, and that without genuine activism, a lot of rights now for granted may disappear.
His impassioned words were matched by the fiery, soulful set the band delivered, at times rollicking Detroit soul, at times garage punk, at times psych-blues. Yes, “Kick Out the Jams,” was a highlight, only because the song has become a cultural touchstone over time. That said, “Ramblin Rose,” “Rocket Reducer N. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” “Call Me Animal,””Come Together” and “Motor City is Burning,” also carried their weight with the crowd. The relatively unknown Brooks was an engaging and entertaining frontman and the rhythm section of Randle and Watson were a well-tuned big-block Chevy, but the real stars of the show were the guitar tandem of Kramer and Salas. The 74-year-old Kramer has the staid and kindly demeanor of the man who is in charge of tech support at your office, whereas Salas bears a more traditional axe-slinger vibe. The two exchanged bursts of distortion at one another, playing off each other’s strengths, call and response. while concentrating more on the purity of their riffs than technical noodling.
Fifty years ago, the MC5 burned bright and burned out. Well ahead of their time and likely on the FBI watch list, their potent brew of R&B-inflected proto-punk mixed with left-wing political activism was particularly dangerous combo. Vietnam protests, civil rights, Nixon, hippies, sexual liberation and drug culture were front and center to their music and lifestyles. Their manager, John Sinclair, was the founding member of the White Panther Party, a militantly anti-racist socialist group and counterpart to the Black Panthers. While a lot of bands talk about political activism, the Motor City 5 were soldiers. Of the five original members, three have passed on. Fellow guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, who married Patty Smith, died in 1994. Lead singer Rob Tyner passed away in 1991, and bassist Michael Davis died in 2012. Original drummer Dennis Thompson did contribute to the new album.
Ever one to match his words with action, Kramer remains busy with his nonprofit prison outreach program, Jail Guitar Doors, which now includes the CAPO Center (Community Arts, Programming and Outreach), which recently opened in Los Angeles.
Photos by Roy Jurgens