Gang of Four at ONCE Ballroom

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by James Ammirato

Last Tuesday, I was very excited to have the chance to see Gang of Four, one of my current favorite post-punk bands. I must admit, I’m not nearly as familiar with their work as a die-hard fan would be, but I had listened to Entertainment! (1979) enough times where I thought it would be appropriate to buy tickets for their show. When the show was announced, I was quite surprised to see that it would be at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, a rather small and unassuming venue for a band that’s made such an impact over the years. I wasn’t going to question it, though. I always love to see notable bands in a more intimate setting and being able to see the performers’ faces is always nice, something that’s not necessarily guaranteed in an arena setting.

Upon entry to the venue, it was obvious that I was one of the few people that wasn’t middle aged. I was expecting an older audience, but I was also expecting there to be at least a sizable amount of art students or younger people that think they’re cool for seeing an older band. As more people started to come in, however, I quickly realized that most people were probably my mom’s age, perhaps trying to relive the glory days.

The first band started around 9:00, a local act called Minibeast, who I later found out is the current project of Peter Prescott, formerly of Mission of Burma. The three-piece played about 45 minutes of abrasive noise rock, underlined by the phenomenal drumming of Keith Seidel, who at one point played a 16th note, tom-driven beat for probably ten minutes before stopping. It was impressive for anyone to pull off, but even more so considering Seidel is most likely upwards of 40 years old. But hey, age is just a number.

Minibeast’s set was extremely entertaining to watch, with Prescott on vocals and guitar, improvising much of what was going on. Equipped with a looping pedal and a MIDI keyboard, as well as a weathered Fender and an amp that emitted feedback like it was its job (which I guess it was), the trio was unstoppable. The vocals were sparse, which played to the band’s strength as a noise band, and when there were words they usually consisted of something repeated, like “I can sermon now” or “I must be the town crier.” Always harsh, unrelenting, and bleak, the way a noise rock band should be. I thoroughly enjoyed their set, as well as the woman in the crowd I saw looking around with a disgusted “what the hell is this??” face.

The band maxed out around 45 minutes, and we were left to wait for the headliner. After a period that was longer than I would have liked (they were having sound issues), Gang of Four took the stage. Now, I knew that the band consisted of only one original member, Andy Gill, but I wasn’t quite sure who else would be taking the others’ places. A quick search after the show told me that John “Gaoler” Sterry had replaced the original vocalist in 2012, and Thomas McNeice had taken Dave Allen’s spot on bass all the way back in 2008. Needless to say, seeing the original Gang would have been preferable, but I was prepared to make the most of it.

The set started with Andy Gill doing an improvised noise piece, something of a performance act that consisted of him literally throwing around a cheap Fender Squier and reaping the feedback-y rewards that came with it. A fan of noise in general I had fun watching it, and it’s always satisfying seeing a guitar not be treated so delicately. After a few minutes of this, the band joined Gill on stage, and the set began around 10:30.

I was pleasantly surprised that they started with “Anthrax” off Entertainment! one of my favorite songs from the record and one that I consider to be something of a deep cut. The band was well-rehearsed, and they broke into a more improvised outro to complete the track. They continued with a couple of tracks from their more recent LP’s that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about, then returned to some more early tracks from Solid Gold and Songs of the Free, like “I Love a Man in Uniform” and “What We All Want.”

Throughout the performance, there were multiple issues with the band’s sound. For starters, the lead vocals were consistently too low, despite Sterry’s attempts to switch back and forth between microphones to try to be heard. Andy Gill’s guitar had next to no attack on it whatsoever, which I’ll concede is the sound he provides on their records, but in a live context, it didn’t translate at all. To make matters worse, the low-end was cranked through the roof, so every bass note, tom-hit, and kick drum sent a wave through the audience’s chests, while the guitar was more of an addition than a key component. Tobias Humble’s drums also seemed to be mic’d oddly, to the effect that his fills seemed to get louder the lower the pitch of each drum was. What I mean is that I could see, rather feel things like the floor toms with my entire body, whereas his snare hardly even reached my ears. Overall, the highs and the lows were seriously out of balance, which can make for a difficult listening experience.

The performances themselves were simply average. Gill’s guitar work was good in that it replicated what he plays on the records, but he didn’t necessarily add anything extra that would have enhanced the live experience, most likely because he knows that at this point, he doesn’t have to. Sterry’s vocals were decent, though not nearly in the same league as the original Jon King, who really trademarked the group’s sound with his signature accent and vocal delivery. Out of all the members, I found Thomas McNeice’s bass playing to be the most interesting, complete with plenty of jazz squares and chromatic lines that are all too important to the dance-punk genre.

In the end, I’m glad I went to the show since I can now say I’ve seen Gang of Four, but I wasn’t blown away by any means. It goes to show that most other performances by older bands that I’ve seen in the past were much better than I may have originally thought, and this show definitely put that in perspective for me. Gang of Four is a great band, but I’m sure they were much more of a live spectacle in their heyday, even with the addition of several younger members. It just goes to show that youthfulness doesn’t always equal greatness.

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