Friday night I took a break from working on Sigmar’s Heirs: A Guide to the Empire for WFRP and went to see Gang of Four. The gig was at the Showbox, an overpriced rock club across the street from Pike’s Place Market. I seem to recall going to a WotC Xmas party there once, but maybe I’m confusing it with someplace else.
The first band up was Portland’s Menomena. They were…well, I’m not exactly sure what they were. Between the three members they played about ten instruments. One guy had a keyboard on top of another keyboard and then a xylophone on top of that. Plus he played guitar. The bass player also played several different saxophones. After watching a few songs in which they’d switch instruments and tempos multiple times within the same song—and sometimes just clap—I suddenly began to hear Christopher Walken’s voice in my head: “I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell!” Amazingly, a cowbell was the one thing Menomena didn’t have on stage. Can’t say I cared for this band too much. Too arty and too unfocused for my taste.
Next up was Radio 4 from NYC. I first heard about them several years ago and all the reviews compared them to Gang of Four. I picked up their first record and didn’t care for it. I’m not sure if it’s just that they’ve got better in the intervening years or if they are just one of the bands that doesn’t record well, but their live show was much more engaging than the record. They were energetic, the songs were tight, and their set was good. I began to laugh half way through their second song when I noticed that their percussion player had just started playing a cowbell…
I’ve got to say though, there’s something weird about Radio 4 opening for Gang of Four. It’d be like if Rancid opened for the Clash. Sure, they have some good songs, but they’ll be rendered irrelevant as soon as the band they imitate comes onstage. And that’s exactly what happened. Radio 4 may be the learners but Gang of Four are still the masters.
Before the show, I had wondered if I wasting my money. I feared I’d go the show and get my hopes up and then Gang of Four would be fat lazy bastards going through the motions. Well drummer Hugo Burnham is a bit round in the middle, but the band was spot on. Although they are in the 40s, they used the stage better than most bands I’ve seen. Vocalist Jon King, bassist Dave Allen, and guitarist Andy Gill were all over the stage and King used all three of mics as he roamed about. They played the songs with great enthusiasm and abundant energy and all the elements came together for an amazing performance.
Song selection was just about perfect for me. Nearly the whole set was drawn their two masterpiece LPs: That’s Entertainment! and Solid Gold. Interestingly, the few song they played from later albums were greatly improved live. I Parade Myself, for example was 10 times better than its overproduced studio version. The only favorite of mine they didn’t play was Guns Before Butter. I’ve had that song in my head a lot lately because it’s so appropriate. “All this talk of blood and iron; it’s the cause of all my shaking.“
When the set was over, the crowd went berserk and they came back for an encore that ended with Damaged Goods. Other Showbox gigs I’ve been to have always ended after one encore. They are very quick to turn the lights up, turn the canned music on, and herd you out. The crowd, however, was entirely too worked up for that. They yelled, hollered, and whistled until Gang of Four came back one more time. They kicked into I Found That Essence Rare to thunderous applause and left the audience sweaty but sated. I walked out of the show with that “great gig” feeling that’s almost like being high. Not too many bands do that for me anymore.
If Gang of Four comes to your town, do yourself a favor and check them out.