This Is Your Correspondent…
On friday night I saw Wire here in Philadelphia at Johnny Brenda’s. I had been looking forward to this for awhile. It was one of my all-time favorite bands, playing in a nice, small venue. Even though it’s been over thirty years since the band was formed, they did not disappoint.
Wire has been around since 1976 but this tour is in support of their newest album, Object 47, which is thusly named because it is the 47th object in their discography. This is the first Wire album not featuring Bruce Gilbert, an original member who was often pegged as the memeber most inclined to experimentation and noise. It’s not clear whether he is gone from Wire or merely taking a break (drummer Robert Gotobed famously fired himself from the band during a drum-machine heavy phase) but for this tour his guitar duties are being taken up by Margaret Fiedler, formerly of the excellent Laika and Moonshake.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the show. Wire are definitely not ones for nostalgia. In the old days, a song was usually played live for a while, then dropped from the setlist before it was ever released on record. For the mid-80′s reunion, they hired a Wire cover band (The Ex-Lion Tamers) to cover their first album Pink Flag in its entirety before their own set. In an interview from 2000 frontman Colin Newman remarked that it had ”less to do with an obdurate refutation of our own accomplishments and more to do with the fact that we are unlikely to have brought enough conviction to the material to make it ‘new’ again.”
The show almost started promptly at 10pm (there are some advantages to seeing bands with middle-aged members). I say “almost” because there was a slight technical problem with one of the mics. While the soundman was trying to figure out the problem, Colin (Newman, guitarist/vocalist) and Graham (Lewis, bassist/vocalist) had some friendly banter with the crowd. Having never seen Wire and only having their albums to go by, I was expecting them to be aloof, oblique, etc, but they were actually both quite charming and funny.
The technical problems sussed out, they kicked off with “Our Time” from 2003′s Send. Any doubts I had about middle-aged men (and women) playing rock music were instantly erased. The thought crossed my mind more than once during the show that here were musicians that could run circles around some younger bands I have seen recently.
The setlist turned out to be a mixture of songs from throughout Wire’s career, with an emphasis on Object 47 material (which sounded great live). During “Being Sucked In Again” from Chairs Missing bassit Lewis’s unexpected screaming/moaning backup vocals had me chuckling out loud. Before launching into “Silk Skin Paws” from 1988′s A Bell is a Cup… Until it is Struck Lewis remarked that they had written it “in the 80′s, about bankers jumping off of buildings” and that it felt “nostalgic” now.
At one point, a friend texted me wanting to know if they had played “The 15th” from 154, because it was her favorite Wire song. Apparently she was not alone because the crowd went apeshit as soon as they heard the opening guitar line. During a particular beautiful, yet slightly-unsettling version of “Boiling Boy” from A Bell Is A Cup… Colin picked up the second guitar he had on stage for the first and only time. [warning, guitar nerdery tangent ahead] In case you were wondering, it was an Eastwood Airline Map, a beautiful guitar. For the rest of the show Colin played a Line 6 Variax. Personally, I was disappointed not to see the Ovation Breadwinner that was made famous by Colin in the 70′s and 80′s. After a little research, however, I found out that Colin originally bought the Breadwinner “entirely because it looked cool” and that it in fact “sounded pretty rubbish”. Apparently the new album was recorded mostly with the Eastwood, and the Variax is used live for technical reasons. I’ll also throw in that Margaret played a beat-up looking, but I’m sure beloved red Jazzmaster for the entire show. [end of guitar nerdery].
This was basically a dream of a show for me and I didn’t want to end. In fact, I don’t think anyone did. After their set ended, the band come out for first (of three!) encores and played “Lowdown” from Pink Flag. I have to say, it was kind of surreal, and definitely amazing to have the entire crowd sing/yell along with the band for the “drowning in the big swim, rising to the SURFACE” line… and then have Colin answer with a quick “that’s the lowdown”. The Philly crowd was excellent and clearly into it, making a lot of noise and non-stop dancing in front. Colin commented that he didn’t want to say “Thank you, Philadelphia!” because we were “all individuals who should not be generalized by the city you live in”.
The next encore was an extended version of the song “Pink Flag” whose intro consisted of Colin furiously strumming an E chord like he was channeling Spacemen 3. It was nothing like the recorded version and you could tell the band was having fun playing with it. With a final scream of “How many dead or alive!?” the song ended on a dime. Let me just add that I normally hate encores but I would have welcomed about 12 more at this point.
The last song of the night was “12XU”, which first appeared on the seminal punk document Live at the Roxy WC2 way back in 1977. They played it at a blazing pace that made Minor Threat’s cover seem slow in comparison. As they left the stage, it was the crowd yelling “thank you!” to the band which seemed completely appropriate at the time. Overall, I was blown away, and after this and the last show that I saw, 2008 is shaping up to be one of my favorite years for live music in a long time.