Saturday, April 9, 2011
We dragged azz up to NYC on Wed. to see Wire at the Bowery Ballroom coz, as is too often the case, the tour skipped over Philly. Having asked around I realize that this is often because local promoters -- primarily meaning the local operatives of Live Nation -- weren't willing to pay their going guarantee. Sigh. (and yet, friggin' Cut Copy sold out the Trocadero!)
Anyway we get there early as venue site said doors open at 8PM, tix said 8:30PM - so who knew when they'd go on. Texted around and old DC punkcrony Don Fleming had locked down a table and seats - WHOOPPEE! (at my age getting to sit rather than stand for a couple hours, definitely considered a positive.
The set commenced with the pulsing electronic instrumental piece "99.9" from "Send" played back via recording or pre-programmed synth, empty stage. As it ended, the group matter-of-factly walked on stage, plugged in and burst into "Comet," a little artpunk masterstroke from "Send," next quickly shifting gears into the musically more nonchalant but lyrically vitriolic "Please Take" ("fuck off out of my face, you take up too much space" - HAR!) And onwards they went.
By the end of the third encore they'd played nearly two hours. Happily they played the bulk of the new album "Red Barked Tree" -- and that was essential. I like to hear my favorite songs by any given band as much as the next couch potato, but watching a veteran band do that actually depresses me as it feels like a capitulation, an admission that their glory days are behind them and that they can't come up with anything new that matches their best old stuff. In effect, they shift from being a working band to an act. Not that the results of that are bad, just different, and to me, sad.
In Wire's case they put their latest work front and center, but with two hours at their disposal offered up a tasteful, interesting selection of material from their back catalogue, pulling selections from throughout their career, all three main phases with lots of numbers from the first three album -- "Map Ref"! -- but a healthy dose from their "pop" period: "Kidney Bingoes," "Silk Paws," et cetera -- one of the encores was a relaxed re-reading of "Drill." Great programming. Entertaining, instructive, lots of variety. A lot of great songs with clever if simple arrangements.
And that's what you come to see -- coz this is not a theatrical band, not flamboyant or visually exciting. Neither is technical prowess especially important to what they do. Most of the songs are constructed out of exceedingly simple riffs and rhythms. But they're all a bit off kilter, sometimes subtley, sometimes quite grandly and then overlaid with strong but straightforward melodic hooks. This is stuff that just about any decent musician could play -- indeed, they took the NJ Wire tribute band Ex Lion Tamers out with them in the 80's to play a greatest hits set drawn from their first three albums -- and anyone COULD write. But Wire were the first to consciously develop early punk's minimalist program and apply that to deconstructing the idea of rock song and reconstruct it as something more like sonic sculpture (I'm stealing an old idea I stuck in my review of "Pink Flag" for the Unicorn Times in DC) and then maintain that agenda in varying degrees on successive albums - even as they added more and more elements of more orthodox pop songwriting and execution.