Live review: Gang of Four at the Music Box
What happens when innovations become tropes? That depends on the innovators, as was made smashingly clear by Monday’s performance at the Music Box by Gang of Four (more about smashing later). The U.K. quartet’s classic 1979 album Entertainment! heralded the group as punk-funk progenitors, blurring disco’s dance floor urgency with punk’s political insurgency. Gang of Four since became one of popular music’s most influential concerns for everyone from R.E.M, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fugazi to new post-punk revivalists spanning Bloc Party and the Rapture.
The band, formed in Leeds in 1977, has also endured as timeless rather than nostalgic by remaining one of rock’s most kinetic live acts. When they reunited in 2005, their concerts proved even better than when Gang of Four was supposedly in their prime. While this recent performance wasn’t up to that level, it still demonstrated a commitment to savage artistry like no act in recent memory.
“The first time we played here, it was a disaster,” singer Jon King snarled a third of the way through the concert, launching into an anecdote about a bass player with a smashed nose leaving the stage slick with blood.
Monday night's 17-song set felt equally visceral. Entering to a smoke-filled stage, Gang of Four launched into “You'll Never Pay For The Farm” off their surprisingly vital current album "Content," and momentum built exponentially with each new number. The crowd appreciated the new material, but proved absolutely rabid over the band’s iconic tracks such as “Ether” which, with its taut martial thump and searing drone leads from guitar anti-hero Andy Gill, evoked Led Zeppelin for people with short haircuts and socialist leanings.
“Anthrax” served as Gill’s showcase, cementing his status as the post-punk Hendrix. His face betrayed no emotion as he coaxed serrated harmonics and feedback out of his Stratocaster, furiously tweaking the tremolo and dragging the strings across the mike stand; at one point, Gill appeared to play it with his teeth before smashing the guitar and handing out the shards to the audience.
King’s performance was equally bravura, marking him as one of the great confrontational front men alongside Mark E. Smith and John Lydon. Wearing a loose suit jacket, King alternately took on the personas of wild-eyed preachers, boogie-possessed lounge lizards and messianic politicians; he acrobatically threw himself across the stage, often staring down the audience as a dare. Over the great funk groove of “To Hell With Poverty,” King even attempted a somersault, and it was almost as thrilling as the song’s relentless, elastic bassline.
Throughout the show, Gang of Four’s attack proved precise but deliberately human. The 2005 reunion featured a different rhythm section, original bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham, whose interplay felt somewhat missed; new bass player Thomas McNeice ably duplicated Allen’s lines, but Burnham’s heavy swing was hard to capture for current skinsman Mark Heaney. But these quibbles shrank when Gang of Four attacked its brutal relationship anthem “Damaged Goods,” spawning the night’s first mosh pit right at the show’s climax. It felt fitting: three decades plus in, Gang of Four still creates that feeling that anything can happen, especially if it’s dangerous and thrilling.
-- Matt Diehl
Top photo: Gang of Four singer Jon King at the Music Box on Monday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Guitarist Andy Gill, of British post-punk innovators Gang of Four, at the Music Box. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times