UP ON THE STAND – MC50 Kick Out The Jams At The Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Anniversary tours are always tricky, especially for a band with the cachet of the MC5.

Reputations can be destroyed, legacies tarnished and there’s always the risk of being accused of “selling out”.

Wayne Kramer has faced such a backlash before having previously reformed the band for a one-off show in 2003 with two surviving members as part of a Levi’s ad campaign.

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Not, perhaps, the best look for a group rooted in the radical hard left politics of the late ‘60s counterculture and the musical mouthpiece of the revolutionary White Panther movement.

Fast forward to 2018 and Kramer is the only original member on stage for this tour marking 50 years since the release of the band’s live debut album.

With drummer Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson having declined an invitation to take part, the guitarist is backed by four luminaries from the underground/alternative scene, for which his band were such an influence.

But at the age of 70, could Kramer still cut it as a live performer, or would this incarnation of the MC5 be the ‘travesty’ that some social media sages had been predicting?

Matt Catchpole (words) and Sam Wells (pictures) were at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire to find out.

THE HARD STUFF – Wayne Kramer, picture by Sam Wells

Tasked with warming us up before the main event is Michael Monroe, former frontman, of Finnish glam metallers Hanoi Rocks.

At first glance, this looks like a wildly inappropriate booking, but when you think the MC5 probably influenced as many heavy rock bands as punks, it starts to make more sense.

Looking like a relic from the 1980s, Monroe wisely refuses to take himself too seriously, whipping out his sax, or striding out onto the shoulders of his audience as the mood takes him.

It’s all a bit daft, but fast and fun and Monroe and his band certainly give it their all in an energetic high camp performance.

SAX APPEAL – Mike Monroe, picture by Sam Wells

By the time Monroe and his well-drilled accomplices troop off, the Empire is filling up nicely.

Generally, it’s blokes in their 40s and 50s, although there are some younger faces of both sexes and a few hardcore garage-punks, including a guy in a kilt who looks like he’s just walked off the battlefield at Culloden.

The lights go down and for a moment we’re back tin Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in 1968 as a recording of MC5’s ‘spiritual advisor’ Brother J. C. Crawford announcing the band comes over the PA.

“Brothers and sisters, it’s time for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution….”

The MC50 run on and we’re into Ramblin’ Rose – Kramer himself taking lead vocals – before allowing towering vocalist Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla to deliver the famous expletive-driven intro to Kick Out The Jams.

At this point, the whole place goes nuts and any doubts about the validity of this venture evaporates in an instant.

LOOKING AT YOU – Kramer wields his Strat like a weapon, picture by Sam Wells

Kramer’s wielding his signature Stars ‘n Stripes Stratocaster like a weapon as the band rip through the entire first album in sequence.

The sound is big, gutsy and accomplished and it’s a pleasure to behold.

Come Together rifles by and then there’s the earthy, chugging blues of their homage to their home city Detroit Is Burning – first made famous by John Lee Hooker.

“Man, it’s good to be with you tonight in London,” Kramer yells before going on to introduce the rest of the band.

With his screaming baritone and mop of black curls, Durant bears a passing resemblance to original frontman Rob Tyner, but that’s where the similarities end, because this is emphatically not a tribute band.

COME TOGETHER – Marcus Durant and Billy Gould, picture by Sam Wells

Much tighter and more controlled than their forbears, the MC50 stamp their own imprint on the songs.

Locked together at the back, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty are a dynamic combination, the real engine behind this powerhouse outfit.

While in Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, Kramer has found the perfect foil.

One of the most natural and fluid guitarists this reviewer has ever seen, the beanie-hatted Thayil plays with consummate ease.

His nonchalant style complements Kramer’s bells and whistles showmanship and there are moments like the blistering riffola of Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa when the two guitars appear to be having their own private conversation.

Some of the more ‘out there’ psychedelic free jazz material like the Sun Ra inspired Starship is clearly of its period, but it’s delivered with such conviction you can’t help but get drawn in.

There’s a moment when all four musicians gather round Canty’s drums that’s akin to a religious experience.

KICK OUT THE JAMS – Kramer and Thayil in action, picture by Sam Wells

As Starship fades out, Kramer pays tribute to the original band members. What the likes of Tyner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, both dead from heart attacks in their 40s, would have made of all this is anyone’s guess.

Thompson and bassist Michael Davis both joined Kramer for the DKT/MC5 tour in 2005 and subsequent reunions. The latter succumbing to liver failure in 2012.

With the applause for MC5 MK1 melting away, the 2018 vintage crank things up again with a selection of tracks from the band’s second and third albums

Tonight  is just fabulous – Kramer’s face contorted in a mixture of ecstasy and surprise – almost like even he can’t believe the sounds he’s ringing from his guitar.

For Shakin’ Street he straps on an acoustic for what’s perhaps the most commercial song in the MC5 canon. So sweet are the melodies this could have been written by The Monkees.

Judging by the broad grins on their faces, Kramer’s supporting cast are thoroughly enjoying themselves, while he seems genuinely thrilled to have such a great band behind him.

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Future/Now from High Time gets an outing, before I Can Only Give You Everything and a titanic version of Call Me Animal take us into the first encore.

After a short break the band return with Kramer jogging round the stage with all the innocent joy of a toddler on a sugar rush.

Canty’s drums belt out the rhythm to Sister Anne, and Monroe joins in on sax, before conductor Kramer slows things down for the ballad Let Me Try.

“The MC5 was really a soul band,” Kramer remarks, “We just exchanged the horn section for electric guitars.”

Only at the very end do we see a hint of the old polemical politics.

“We have a guy in the White House, who should be in the Big House and you guys have a lot of similar stuff in your country too. But the people have the power. I want you to resist, I want you to vote. We wanna live in a world we can be proud of.”

HIGH TIME – Marcus Durant cuts some rug, picture by Sam Wells

A banging bass line from Gould sets up the last song Looking At You, Kramer strutting across across the stage mid solo.

And then it’s all over, the band gather together to take a bow, before leaving Kramer fittingly alone, to take his last goodbyes.

MC50 are a slick, professional outfit that put on a hell of a show.

Sure, there’s not the febrile, riotous, anything can happen, all out assault of early MC5 shows (check out youtube kids), but hey, we’re not in 1968 any more.

Instead we got a highly professional, modern interpretation of the songs of one of most exciting bands ever committed to record.

Wayne Kramer was the de facto leader of that band and the undisputed leader of the MC50.

No-one has more right to take this music out on tour and, after 50 years or fighting the good fight, few would begrudge him his place in the sun now.

Can he kick it? Yes he can!

  • The European leg of the MC50 tour is underway. More information and tour dates from the band website here.
  • Kramer’s memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities is out now published by Faber and Faber in the UK
I CAN ONLY GIVE YOU EVERYTHING – Kramer up on the stand, picture by Sam Wells
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