|Photo by Jan Audun Uretsky|
My week of legendary music began with the extremely venerable ensemble known as the New York Philharmonic as I was invited to a picnic to see one of their concerts in Central Park. While the company and chow were grand, we left at intermission as it was bloody hot, the amplified sound was of gramophone quality, and, having endured Dvorak's cello concerto, there was no way I was submitting to Tchaikovsky. Kudos to Alan Gilbert and the group in any case, at least for getting New Yorkers to gather in such a glorious setting.
Next night was when the week really took off, with the mighty Wire taking the stage at Bowery Ballroom. While I've been a fan since hearing Map Ref 41N 93W on Warner's Troublemakers loss leader (remember those?), I've never seen them live. Even so, I tried not to expend much effort imagining what the concert would be like. Based on what I've heard, either of two main incarnations could show up: the tight, straight-ahead performers of songs, or the confrontational, high-concept art project. In the latter form, they are perfectly capable of playing one chord for half an hour just to see how many people are left in the room when they've finished. I have the utmost respect for them as artists and musicians so I just decided to be open to whatever they had in mind.
There was an opening set by Bear In Heaven, one of those inexplicably acclaimed Brooklyn bands that gives that whole idea a bad name. Not terrible, just OK, with a distinctive (if derivative) sound but not one memorable song. Although they had fans in the audience, they didn't overstay their welcome and the hyper-efficient Bowery staff soon had the stage ready for Wire. Colin Newman (guitar/vocals), Graham Lewis (bass/vocals), Matthew Simms (guitar), and Robert Gray (drums) took their positions without ceremony and launched into Marooned from their 35 year old second album, Chairs Missing.
From the first notes, it was obvious we were in the presence of masters, the types of musicians who play with ease and comfort no matter how complex or ferocious the sounds become. It was also immediately obvious that they were not going to present themselves as conquering heroes but rather just as a band, and an extremely vital one at that. This was reflected in their set list, which included eight songs from Change Becomes Us, released earlier this year, and six other songs (including two brand new numbers) from the current millennium. They are obviously fully engaged with their latest material and there was no hint of any nostalgia, which was fine with me as I certainly didn't go to relive my youth.
Watching them play, I couldn't help thinking of Buddy Holly - and not just because of Newman's heavy black glasses. It is Holly who is widely credited with cementing the two-guitars-bass-drums line up, which remains a common template to this day. I wondered what Holly would think of this hypnotic, driving music - music which uses his building blocks but is completely devoid of the country, blues and jazz influences which dominated his songs. There is some common ground in the hint of British folk they both employ and watching the brutal version of Oh Boy! that he played on Ed Sullivan makes me think he might relate! In any case, seeing their music take shape in front of me I was once again amazed at the protean nature of Holly's quartet.
Terse strumming from Newman initiated many of the songs, joined by colorful patterns from Simms, melodic ostinatos from Lewis, and Gray's ultra-precise drumming. Newman sang most of the songs but both he and Lewis employ a similar vibrato-free approach, putting over the melodies and lyrics with a minimum of elaboration. These elements seem to have infinite permutations and Wire has found an astonishing number of them in their long career - and they seem in no chance of running out.
Of course, today's musicians are not limited to the instruments they have on stage. Simms's guitar was often treated and occasionally seemed to be triggering some other electronic instrument. Newman had an iPad on a stand next to him that was also creating sonic atmospheres on some songs. He also used the device as a lyrical TelePrompTer, which seemed to bother some members of the audience. Look - they guy is 58 years old, has written dozens of songs, some of them quite wordy, so I have no problem with it. I actually found his dismissive swipe to the next page of lyrics quite endearing and well in character.
Speaking of age, I always say that rock & roll keeps you young - if it doesn't kill you first - and so it is with Wire. They seemed to never run out of steam, right through to the end of the second encore, a lengthy, noisy version of Pink Flag. Perhaps newest member Simms, who's in his late 20's, as given them a new lease on life. He's a terrific presence on stage, often bobbing his head like a fan and never throwing any typical shapes despite the violence he sometimes visited on his instrument. He also acts as a fully-operational member on Change Becomes Us and is just a great addition to the band.
If I had one complaint it would be that Graham Lewis only sang one song, the marvelous Re-Invent Your Second Wheel from the new album. He's in many ways their secret weapon, a great lyricist and a singer whose husky croon is a nice contrast to Newman's slightly more acerbic voice. But what a fantastic show by a band that seems to be on quite a roll since founding guitarist Bruce Gilbert left in 2004. I won't say "here's to another 37 years of Wire," as that seems improbable, but I do look forward much more great music in the years ahead. Viva Wire!
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Next time: We visit with Mobb Deep.