Gang of Four, Rough Trade East, London
Punk poets are still a potent force
Monday 31 January 2011
The "in-store" has long been a staple of the record business promotional circus, traditionally one of the few times an act's followers get within touching distance of their idols.
It's rather slipped off the showbiz schedule in recent years, however, as record stores have disappeared from our high streets, killed by competition from downloads and supermarkets. So it's heartening that Rough Trade, the doyen of independent retailers, should be trying to revive the promotional in-store appearance in a new form, with its ongoing series of live shows at their east London branch in Brick Lane. Not only do fans get a chance to meet and greet and have their albums signed, but they also get a short free performance thrown in for good measure.
The latest to take advantage of this opportunity are returning agit-rockers Gang of Four, here to promote their excellent new album, Content, as sturdy a set of thought-provoking funk-punk as any in their illustrious career. The CD racks at the rear end of the store are shunted aside to allow between two and three hundred fans to crowd against the small stage against the back wall.
Rather too small, as it happens. As soon as the band launch into "You'll Never Pay for the Farm", a typically sardonic commentary on modern economic madness, singer Jon King's relentlessly stamping right boot dislodges the bass drum microphone, and a roadie has to squeeze behind him to tape it back in place. The song is a pulsing, powerful piece propelled by the muscular playing of skinny, dreadlocked bassist Thomas Mcneice, whose strutting lines brace the band's new songs like massive, sturdy girders, allowing Andy Gill to thread a long snarl of distorted guitar noise around King's vocal as he cajoles the crowd with confrontational lines like "You think you're a winner?".
King is something of a bull in a china shop, more used to flailing wildly than trying to corral his movements into a tiny space. On this cramped stage, he's like a bottle of fizzy pop, spraying chaos everywhere. An early lunge for the microphone during "You Don't Have to be Mad" results in it becoming unplugged, so he tosses it into the audience and grabs Mcneice's, unwittingly getting his legs entwined in the lead, as if lashing himself to the stand to see out the storm. As the set continues, he darts from one mic to another, stands collapsing in his wake. The band rides the monster riff of "What We All Want" comfortably, Gill essaying a stuttering guitar solo by rapidly trembling a switch on his Stratocaster, before returning to the new album for "I Party All the Time", possibly rock's first anthem of culpability. "I'm not innocent!" roars King, sweating profusely as he drops to his knees like a supplicant, appearing to dislodge another piece of stage kit in the process.
Gill and Mcneice lock riffs for a brusque, still potent "Damaged Goods", before "Do As I Say" brings the brief set to a close, King swinging upside down from the lighting rig like a demented trapeze artist, mic stands scattering beneath him. It's the kind of finale that trumps any notion of an encore, and it's doubtful whether any more energy could be squeezed from such a small stage anyway.
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