SAN FRANCISCO — A half century ago, when MC5 (the Motor City Five) burst onto the scene, America was in crisis. Ideological differences were tearing the nation apart. Racism was everywhere. Cities were on fire. Tribal politics played out in Washington. When MC5’s iconic frontman, Wayne Kramer, stepped onstage at The Regency Ballroom Thursday to once again kick out the jams as an act of political defiance, he found himself facing a future just like the past.
It’s hard to overstate MC5’s importance in the history of rock and roll. The band’s open political defiance, its vulgarity, the length of the band members’ hair and the volume of their amplifiers were all openly hostile to the plastic fantastic American Dream of 1968. The band served as an archetype for every punk and politically conscious act that followed, including Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth and Rage Against the Machine.
Political dissent and hard living took their toll, and except for the 70-year-old Kramer an drummer Dennis Thompson (who’s not involved in the reunion tour), the original MC5 members passed away over the last 30 years. To mark the 50th anniversary of the live recording of MC5’s most influential album, Kick Out the Jams, Kramer enlisted a who’s who of hard rockers, including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty for his band on the MC50 tour.
Thursday’s set began with legendary Dead Kennedys’ frontman Jello Biafra appearing on stage wearing a shirt that read “Trump Hates Me.” Biafra inveighed against what he called “a corrupt regime in Washington.”
MC5 appeared on stage dressed in black with more than a touch of gray. The band launched into a roaring rendition of “Rambling Rose,” the first song on Kick Out the Jams. Kramer’s fro was supplanted by a receding hairline, resembling Peter Frampton. But rock and roll is a fountain of youth, and as soon as the music started, Kramer began rocking with the intensity of someone half his age, prowling the stage and performing elaborate twirls and Pete-Townsend-style windmills with his guitar.
MC5 proceeded to play Kick Out the Jams in its entirety. The band blazed through “Kick Out the Jams” and “Come Together” in a seamless barrage of power chords. After two or three songs, Kramer handed over the main vocal duties to Zen Guerrilla frontman Marcus Durant, who, with his imposing stature and tangled black hair in his face, resembled the original MC5ers much more than Kramer did. During “Motor City is Burning,” Kramer and Thayil’s guitar solos battled one another as Durant wailed on the harmonica. Faith No More bassist Billy Gould supplied the low end.
The album’s final track, “Starship,” had a slinky jazz feel to it, while at the same time being abrasive enough to peel paint off the walls. Eventually the track devolved into a discordant shriek as Durant wailed on a saxophone.
Kramer and crew then played some other select MC5 cuts, including “Tonight,” “High School” and “Shakin’ Street,” pausing so that Kramer could briefly memorialize the original MC5 members for the audience.
The MC50 tour will culminate in late October when the band will return to Detroit, where Kick Out the Jams was recorded on Halloween night 1968. Perhaps this performance will only further cement the band’s legacy, but it’s also possible that Wayne Kramer and the MC5 will inspire a new generation of rebels. At least one can hope.
Thursday’s bill kicked off with local band Locus Pocus turning in an energetic performance of jammy roots rock. The band conjured brooding psychedelic blues while lead singer Nate Budroe climbed on the stage monitors and howled—part Jim Morrison, part Iggy Pop. Guitarist Kyle Chapman and keyboardist Daniel Markowitz engaged in elaborate musical exchanges as the rhythm section of drummer Michael Kipnis and bassist Daniel de Lorimier chugged away behind them.
Next, L.A.’s Starcrawler laid down slabs of heavy guitar noise while glammed-out singer Arrow De Wilde prowled the stage like a love child of Blondie and Johnny Thunders. The quartet bashed its way through a set of loud scorching Stooges-style rock and roll from its self-titled debut. De Wilde stalked the stage with an air of cat-like anxiety. Drenched in sweat, the band conjured swirling vortexes of sound between songs. During a final whirlwind of sound and fury, a little girl came onstage to play guitar. The crowd responded enthusiastically, and the girl’s smile lit up the room.
This article was corrected to say that original Motor City 5 drummer Dennis Thompson is still alive; just not involved in the reunion tour.