Gang of Four's Blistering Message Scalds Tiny Crowd
Photos by Violeta Alvarez
Gang of Four Warehouse Live March 17, 2015
"They sound like the Killers, except less whiny," was one of the many comments overheard during Gang of Four's first stop in Houston since 2006. Irony reared its ugly head as the band who could claim parentage to the many illegitimate post-punk homage acts behaved appropriately Wednesday night to a sparse crowd at Warehouse Live's smaller Studio room, which holds up to 150 people.
Collecting 150 people with even a slight pulse to see one of rock's most influential acts -- and one Kurt Cobain claimed to have ripped off -- shouldn't be this difficult in the nation's fourth-largest city. Those true fans who bothered to show up, however, did not go unrewarded.
"Nightingale," the opening track from their new album, What Happens Next, serrated the room, cutting through the anticipation of what the current incarnation of the band would sound like in 2015. Like three hired mercenaries following orders from the band's chief assassin, lead guitarist Andy Gill, they traveled in and out of time, attacking the stage with calculated menace.
Shrapnel spread across the crowd as "Not Great Men" raised the black flag, taking no prisoners during its sloganed chorus. Lead singer John Sterry did his best Jon King impression, quickly demanding the crowd's willful suspension of disbelief. Bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Jonny Finnegan illustrated with near perfection Gang of Four's strongest attribute: its aggro-disco rhythm section.
There were catalyzing surprises that were less nostalgia and more fan-friendly with "I Parade Myself" from 1995's Shrinkwrapped LP. "Paralysed" cuffed the crowd's attention while reminding the faithful few of its prophetic illustration of economic stagnation. "Blinkered, paralysed/Flat on my back/They say our world is built endeavor/That every man is for himself," is a rumination of not only the shrinking middle class of the 90s, but the nearly non-existent middle class of today.
Dancing to economic Armageddon reflects the band's brilliant ironic dabblings. In "What We All Want," Sterry, Gill, and company showed how the word "happiness" has been hijacked into a commodity. The wordplay of "Damaged Goods," disguising human relationships as retail products, sounds equally relevant today. Many other bands, including Fugazi, have since borrowed Gang of Four's Situationist politics and carved edges sharp enough to pop our Cartesian bubbles, forcing us to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
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None of their political messages were lost on Wednesday's audience. "Anthrax" reminded the audience that a guitar does not have to be riffed to death to create a manifesto. Andy Gill teased the crowd during his performance of their most beloved song by manipulating feedback pitches and thrusting into the stage floor like a blunted knife into despised enemy. Blistering singalong "At Home He's a Tourist" demonstrated that isolation and alienation are alive and well in 2015. With social media usurping time and consciousness, today it sounds even more germane.
There were anachronisms. The straight-ahead approach of "Isle of Dogs," from What Happens Next, sounded like a desperate attempt to appeal to new audiences. "Stranded" showed more restraint than its more angular, insightful predecessors.
The night did not end on an anticlimactic note, however. "To Hell with Poverty" ended the first set with a howling helplessness in our land filled with chemically altered minds giving in to its maniacal grasp: "To hell with poverty, we'll get drunk on cheap wine." During "Uniform," I could not help of thinking of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the miserable absence of communication between those in authority and the citizens it has sworn to protect.
Therein lies the power of Gang of Four. Just as timely today, their pursuit to point out social and economic injustices have not gone unnoticed. Remarkably, just like their sound, their screeds and slogans are just as groundbreaking today as they were then. More artists like them need to hold up mirrors to what's really going on instead of distracting the audience from it.
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