"Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide...whether you are gonna be the problem, or you are gonna be the solution!"
The lights dim. The crowd steels itself, stirring at the familiar words ringing out over the PA system, spoken above an undertow of hand clapping that crackles with an impatient momentum all its own.
If you've bought a ticket, you know them well, as the opening spoken blast of Kick Out The Jams -- rapped out with apocalyptic gusto by JC Crawford, MC for those two nights of recording (10/30-31/68) that resulted in Kick Out The Jams, the MC5's audacious live debut album.
"You must choose, brothers! You must choose! It takes five seconds! Five seconds of decision! Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet!"
In the darkness, the musicians begin taking their places onstage. A ripple of drum sticks here, a stray power chord there. We're almost underway. Tonight's openers, The Detroit Cobras, just wrapped up, having roused the audience with their own stripped down brand of rock 'n' roll, filtered through the Detroit attitude of old.
"It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move! It's time to get down with it! Brothers ... it's time to testify, and I want to know: Are you ready to testify? Are you ready?"
Now it's time for the main event, MC50, billed as a celebration of the MC5's music, in particular, and the incendiary spirit it embodied, in general. (Hence, the billing, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Kick Out The Jams, and the searing year in which it arrived, in February 1969.)
Hearing Kick Out The Jams as a 16-year-old marked one of the happiest times of my life, one that inspired two questions. What kind of shock politics is this, I wondered, and why does all this Top 40 stuff sound so turgid and slow, by comparison? The minute I heard it, I didn't look back, and I didn't want to settle.
"I give you a testimonial! The MC5!"
A full-throated roar greets the arrival of "Brother" Wayne Kramer, lead guitarist and next to last MC5 member standing, plus lead guitarist, Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), bassist Billy Gould (Faith No More), drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi), and vocalist Marcus Durant (Zen Guerilla). (Drummer Dennis Thompson, the MC5's other remaining original, declined to take part in this outing, as Kramer noted on his Facebook page.)
No matter. Kramer and company waste no time getting down to business with the one-two punch of "Ramblin' Rose"...der-der-der-der-der, der-der-der-der-der-der...and "Kick Out The Jams," whose intro ("It's time to -- kick out the jams, m#therf#ckers," not, "Mother Superior") got the band in so much hot water so long ago. Kramer wrings fast, yet precise, volleys of notes from his red, white and blue Stratocaster -- really, how can Rolling Stone rank him 92nd on its 100 Greatest Guitarists? -- which Thayil answers with a thunderous authority of his own.
And that's how the next 45 minutes unfolds, more or less mirroring the original album running order -- save for "The Motor City Is Burning," which unexpectedly pops up as the third song in the set -- barreling along with the full-throated roar that you'd expect, without losing command of the groove, something that writers don't always seem to appreciate in lauding the band today. It's worth recalling that R&B ravers like "I Believe To My Soul" and "I Put A Spell On You," from Ray Charles and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, respectively, were staples of the MC5's set at the time, yet didn't make it onto Kick Out The Jams, for space reasons, presumably-- c'mon, Elektra, let's see an expanded CD edition with those leftovers. I can't imagine they're doing us any good, sitting on the shelf somewhere, taking up space in a vault!
The MC5 also regularly dipped into the well of free jazz, via their original guiding light and manager, John Sinclair, which "Starship" allows tonight's lineup to revisit, gloriously, complete with Durant squonking on clarinet -- you and Patti Smith, I remind myself, you and Patti Smith -- as you might have expected to hear them do at the time. Few bands navigated such different worlds, and lived to tell the tale, but that mixture of free-form exploration and sure-footed rock is an equally crucial aspect of the MC5's chemistry, and is no less so here tonight.
Durant proves the night's biggest surprise, managing to channel his inner Tyner -- as in Rob, the MC5's lead singer, who died in 1991 -- without merely copying him. It's a fine line to walk between tribute band, and finding space to interject your own personality on the proceedings, but Durant walks it well, between blasts of his own skilled harp playing.
The other big surprise is how Kramer and company apportion the remainder of the set, which leans heavily on Back In The USA ("Call Me Animal," "High School," "Let Me Try,"
Looking At You"), the MC5's controversial middle period album, and skimps on its swan song, High Time, save for a restrained, almost folky version of "Shakin' Street," and the fierce funk-rock protest anthem, "Future/Now." MC5 partisans undoubtedly split down the middle, in terms of their affections for this record or that, but the production issues often cited as a reason for not loving Back In The USA are nowhere in sight here; that's the beauty of live music, which can turn the stiffest album filler into a performance for the ages.
That's definitely true of "Let Me Try," a rare ballad that Durant handles with soulful aplomb, indeed, and a turbocharged romp through Van Morrison's "I Can Only Give You Everything," another unexpected highlight that induces plenty of head bobbing and fist waving action among the crowd. (Not for nothing did Michael Davis, the band's late bass player, cite those early self-released 45s, of which "Everything" is one, as his favorite recorded MC5 moments, when I interviewed him for my massive 1995 DISCoveries feature.)
The strangest aspect of the night is the half-full house that makes up in fervor what it lacks in numbers. The diehards, presumably, are pinching their pennies for the two-night Detroit stand that closes out this particular tour (10/26-27/18). I'm tempted to blame the ambience of 20 Monroe, which seems designed by a sadist -- one who made sure to charge 10 bucks for drinks (and plenty more for anything else), stick the bathroom on the second floor (which requires hiking a long flight of stairs, or waiting for an elevator), and leave no place to sit on the main floor. (Only afterwards do I learn that some chairs had been discreetly tucked away, off to the side...isn't that how it always works?)
In some ways, though, the half-full head count makes the perfect metaphor for an underdog status that doesn't always ring the cash register, nor register on the official radar of approval (Madonna's in the Hall of Fame, but the MC5 isn't? Go figure, as they say). Yet it's impossible to imagine the darker, heavier strain of today's punk and metal without the declamatory blast that the MC5 harnessed to such devastating effect. It's a spirit that can't be copied or copped so easily, either, another quality that lifts kindred spirits like the New York Dolls, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground to greatness, right along with the Five. What do all these names have in common?
As the oft-quoted cliche goes, they didn't sell records by the gross, but most anyone everyone who heard them formed a band. It's the reason, I suspect, that Kramer seems genuinely moved by the reception he gets, as he notes slyly, at one point: "I'm 70 years old, man. Believe me, man, I'm glad to be anywhere!" So am I, and so are we. Kick out the jams, indeed.