Mission of Burma more explosive than ever for reunion show
Michael Azzerad’s wonderful book Our Band Could be Your Life made wide, sweeping, and romantic claims about the importance of our country’s history of underground rock bands, including The Minutemen, Sonic Youth and Mission of Burma. It’s a tribute to Azzerad’s writing that he renewed interest in Boston’s Mission of Burma, which led to new tours and the new album ONoffON. What the trio delivered at San Francisco’s Fillmore was far from a stroll down memory lane, though. Mission of Burma is as vital and fresh and perhaps even more relevant today than 22 years ago, when the band called it quits after a few short years.
Seattle’s instrumental innovators Kinski were tapped as tour mates for MOB’s West Coast tour for a reason. Among the swelling ranks of instrumental sound impressionists (Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor), the members of Kinski have distinguished themselves. This time around, guitarists Chris Martin and Matthew Reid Schwartz demonstrated unnerving powers of communication as they cradled lingering, repeating notes, creating ambient distress signals pregnant with suspense and the impending violence of volume.
The quartet appears to be taking a decidedly more visceral and direct approach, moving away from the ambience of last year’s Airs Above Your Station, yet focusing more on the dramatic, large sound of that album’s “Semaphore,” which from the crowd’s reaction is Kinski’s hit.
Reunion tours have nostalgia on their side, allowing bands to phone it in banking on respect earned in the past. MOB followed no such precedent. With a banner behind the band proclaiming “No New McCarthy Era,” the members’ commºandeered the Fillmore stage with all the force of a swift military occupation. Guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott and bassist Clint Conley played as if their lives were at stake, as I am sure any young romantic idealist treats his first band. But it’s not 1982, and Burma’s members are family men approaching or past 50 years of age. Conley, in the press, has even copped to the notion that today’s shows are more much more intense than when the band first existed. This night’s show gave credence to that claim.
MOB left nothing of its legacy unexamined, performing “Fame and Fortune,” “This Is Not a Photograph,” “Trem Two” and the classic “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” Burma’s sound was added to by Bob Weston (Shellac) in the wings toying with loops and stage volume and bringing a colossal sound that gave “Academy Fight Song” a pummeling intensity the recorded version lacked. Recent material, such as Prescott’s “The Enthusiast” and “Absent Minded,” were adrenaline-laced anthems with chant like choruses and fit in well with the back catalogue.
It was fitting that a band forever on the verge of political statement closed with an encore in which Penelope Houston, former leader of the seminal S.F. punk band The Avengers, joined Burma for an incendiary take on her band’s "The American in Me." Clad in a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with "BEAT BUSH" in bold white capitalized print, Houston spit volatile lyrics ("It’s the American in me that makes me say it’s an honor to die in a war that’s just a politician’s lie") that hold great political relevancy in 2004.