Fifty years ago a powder keg of rock 'n' roll exploded in Michigan, giving birth to the MC5 and The Stooges. Along with The Sonics, who only slightly preceded them, these Michigan bands took the rebellion that was already a foundation of rock 'n' roll and cranked it up to 20. In the process, it laid down roots for what would become the foundation for punk rock a decade later.
The MC5 were most notable for their explosive live shows of near mythic proportions. More than just a frontman, they were a rock 'n' roll combat unit of the highest order, fueled by a synergy few bands are lucky enough achieve. For bands that made their mark on the backs of high-energy live shows, reunion/tribute gigs can be tough. Especially when the band in question is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Fortunately, guitarist Wayne Kramer, the sole original member, has assembled a who’s who of Generation X rock heroes with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden on guitar, Billy Gould of Faith No More on bass, Brendan Canty of Fugazi on drums and Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla on the frontman duties. The combination of younger energy with an energized Kramer made for lightning in a bottle. The synergy has become less a mild reunion and more a full-on tribute to the very essence of what made the MC5 so special.
At 70 years old, Kramer led his troops into battle shuffling and scooting across the stage, exploding riffs from his red, white and blue American flag guitar in all its feedback-drenched glory. Kramer opened with vocal duties on "Ramblin' Rose" before passing the vocal duties to Durant, who accomplished what so many others were found lacking over the last five decades when trying to fill the shoes of original MC5 frontman Rob Tyner. Sporting Tyner’s trademark Afro, he seemed to channel Tyner’s spirit directly into the microphone. If you closed your eyes, you would swear it was actually Tyner onstage with every soulful scream and sincere croon.
The dedication to the tribute came across from every member of the band. Most of whom come from bands that don’t immediately bring MC5 to mind, but it was a testament to how much MC5’s DNA is a permanent fixture in all shades of the rock spectrum. The band did not just do a version of the MC5 — they played every riff like fanboys that had heard or played these songs thousands of times over the course of their lives. They sold the conviction, and it was a pleasure to share in that overwhelming joy.
They launched the show playing a recording of the infamous speech from brother J.C. Cooper that kicks off their 1969 opus Kick Out the Jams live album.
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“Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there; let me see a sea of hands," Cooper said. "I want everybody to kick up some noise. I want to hear some revolution out there, brothers. I wanna hear a little revolution. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution … Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify, are you ready, I give you a testimonial …”
An early highlight of the set came with a genuinely interstellar version of Sun Ra’s “Starship,” fully exploring the cross-section of noise rock, punk, free jazz and even krautrock that the MC5 was pioneering before many of those genres were even fully formed concepts. Kramer gave an extra nod to the source with an improv singalong of Sun Ra’s “Outer Spaceways Incorporated” over the atonal guitar machinations.
The rest of the set was a nice mix of choice songs from MC5 albums: "Back in the USA" and "High Time" with a standout encore featuring "Sister Anne," "Looking at You" and an extra soulful take on "Let Me Try." Durant once again absolutely nailed the late Tyne's vocals to an uncanny degree. It was a near perfect setlist for the crowd of old-school fans. It was not only a solid tribute but probably the closest anyone is going to get to witnessing MC5 in their prime.
MC5 never quite got the acclaim of many of their peers, but their impact and influence on modern music are matched by few. This MC50 tribute was a true testament to that lasting impact, and the truest of testimonials to the revolutionary spirit of rock music of the highest order.