Saturday, May 31, 2008

Live Wire

Someone much wiser than me once made the case that the best thing about summer in New York City is all the free music, and none of the seemingly thousands of fans flocked around the small South Street Seaport stage to see punk legends Wire last night was likely to argue with that. Not after the reformed, reconfigured band played its first show in almost four years, before an adoring and mostly very young audience. I had seen a few other free shows at my old stomping ground the Seaport, including Luna and Son Volt, but none that even approached the size of this crowd.

"Thanks for not going to see the Eagles tonight," lead singer Colin Newman quipped a few songs into the show, to raucous applause and what used to be called guffawing in an earlier, simpler time. "When we started out in 1977, the Eagles were one thing: The Enemy!" More catcalls, general hilarity, and then from our 3rd row "seats" my friend Steve shouted out "Hotel California"! to near-universal peals of laughter, before Wire, 3 Men and a Girl now in the revamped lineup, launched into another brutally primal rhythm in remarkably tight fashion for a band that was returning after such a long layoff.

At one point the bass player mentioned that they had played CBGBs 30 years ago, and he understood it was no longer there. "It's a boutique now!" yelled Johnny Hags, obviously fueled by our short but productive pre-show stop at the Killarney Rose on Pearl Street. Oh yeah, we were on our game all night.

The band played mostly new stuff, with a few old chestnuts like a blistering-fast "1 2 x U" toward the end there. But no "Dot Dash" to our disappointment. It's always like this whenever I go see old punk bands in their new guises; I was pissed last year when the Speedies didn't play "No Substitute"; devastated when The Slits chose to ignore "Heard it Through the Grapevine" a few months ago at the Merc Lounge; and then last night, no "Dot Dash" -- an incredibly catchy raver that rightfully takes its rank among the best songs of that great 1977-79 period of British Punk. Of course the odds are against hearing all the old stuff, especially if you consider that when Wire releases its new album, appropriately titled Object 47, it will be the band's 47th record of its long career. Now, not all were full length or probably even new material, but still, it's a big back catalog from which to choose their nightly set list.

In Wire's case, me and Steve were hoping their set would be saturated with songs from their seminal first 3 albums (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154) -- Dot Dash, Mr. Suit, Ex-Lion Tamer, Reuters, Lowdown, Outdoor Miner, I Am the Fly, It's So Obvious, Three Girl Rumba: incendiary bursts of offhand brilliance, punctuated throughout with great hooks, complete songs that lasted just 50 seconds, a minute, 1 minute and a half. As one of the band once famously said when asked why the early numbers were so short: The song ends when the lyrics run out.
"Dot Dash" comes with a bit of a back story. The DJs at the long-defunct punk club Hurrah's used to play the song, but we had no idea who it was; all we knew that when the song came on we would all hit the dance floor with a vengeance because it was just impossible not to, moshing about before they had a name for it, arms and limbs flailing in an orgiastic release of energy. But then later when we asked the DJ what song he had just played, all we got back was an indiscernible mumble barely audible above the din of the club. "It sounded like he said White Horse," someone would guess, while another thought he heard High Horse. This went on for a couple of months, until someone in our crowd stumbled on the great early punk compilation album The Rare Stuff, and we found out the song was called Dot Dash and it was by a group called Wire. And the rest is some kind of history.

"Who knew that Wire was a jam band!" -- Steve again -- and indeed for most of the night Wire seemed to be in some kind of trance while playing their uber-minimalist brand of industrial hardcore, like a mutant Phish crossed with Joy Division.

The opening act was called Die! Die! Die! and they too had a little Joy Division in them. The lead singer jumped into the crowd a few times--apparently that kind of stuff is big in their native New Zealand, but luckily their feedback-drenched set of punk-by-the-numbers cartunes was mercifully brief. There's a video of one of their songs from last night on YouTube (see post below) and I swear I can see myself out among the crowd, along with my buddies Steve and Johnny Hags and the rest of the assorted nouveau-hip right near the front of the stage, with their accouterments of hipsterism -- the fluffy sideburns, the tight trousers, the roll-your-own-cigarette crowd. But hey, everyone's gotta start out somewhere, and one could have done a lot worse than a free show off the river in the fresh night city air among one's fellow denizens of the demimonde.

See also:

Band On The Rise

Unforeseen Musical Directions

Frequent Mutilation

New Wave Nostalgia

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