Live Review: MC50 Kicks Out The Jams For Detroit Hometown Shows

Wayne Kramer
Chris Balow
– Wayne Kramer
with the MC50 in Detroit

50 years ago, on Halloween, the MC5 stepped onstage at the Grande Ballroom in their hometown of Detroit and performed a concert that would become their debut album, Kick Out The Jams. This weekend, the Wayne Kramer-led tribute to his former comrades, touring as MC50, returned to the scene of the crime with two sold-out shows in the Motor City: Friday night at the 1,000-capacity St. Andrew’s Hall, and Saturday night at the 2,888-capacity Fillmore Detroit (formerly the State Theater). 
It’s difficult to brand this tour as nostalgia when the subject in question is a band that very few people ever saw live, and two-thirds of whose members are no longer with us. But the list of bands the MC5 influenced continues apace, and interest in the band also continues to grow. So Wayne Kramer enlisted a core band of musicians hailing from different, yet simpatico backgrounds for MC50: Kim Thayil (Soundgarden, Audioslave); Marcus Durant (Zen Guerilla); Billy Gould (Faith No More); and Brendan Canty (Fugazi). 
The result is stunning: an assemblage of individual talents whose particular skills could be crafted into a faithful interpretation of not only the music of the MC5, but also the energy and personality of the band – as well as the energy and personality of this particular group of musicians. By the time the caravan reached Detroit, they were absolutely at their peak. St. Andrews Hall, a delightful jewel of an old cozy theater, had the band exploding like a coiled spring; but the next night at the Fillmore, the band managed to best themselves by somehow bringing more power and energy to what was an effort operating already well past hyperdrive.
Kramer quite literally bounced onstage as the now-mythical JC Crawford introduction that opens Kick Out The Jams played over the PA, and the musicians took their places. Kramer took center stage and echoed the now-legendary speech into the microphone along with the audience, who equally knew it by heart: “It’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial, the MC5!” And with that, just as on the album, the band detonated into “Ramblin’ Rose,” and for a minute, you could imagine that you were somehow transported back to the Grande Ballroom, even if you hadn’t been born before that venerable showroom closed its doors. If your imagination hadn’t taken you there yet, it would undoubtedly do so with the second song, as Marcus Durant came to the front of the stage and announced, “It’s time to kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” and you suddenly realized that while you had never exactly wondered what it would feel like to be in a room with a couple of thousand other people screaming that line along with you, you were suddenly very glad you did.
Kim Thayil
Chris Balow
– Kim Thayil
with the MC50 in Detroit
Again, it was the individual elements brought by the diverse group of musicians that made this outing special: the funk in Gould’s bass, the fluidity of Thayil’s guitar, the plaintive power in Durant’s vocals, the economy of Canty’s drumming – these were all vital elements of their current and/or former associations, and they informed their interpretations of the MC5’s music without overpowering it, or making it about them. The only compromise was Thayil, whose zen-like demeanor was just not going to participate in Kramer’s joyful reenactments of the MC5’s legendary onstage choreography: remember, they were a Detroit band, after all. 
For the Detroit shows, a special guest joined the ensemble: Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) joined the “battery” (as Kramer would refer to it) and played in concert with Brendan Canty for the entire show. Two drummers are too much for most bands, except here: these two have the necessary precision to work together, and then also brought different elements of their respective styles in a way that was mesmerizing: the slight polyrhythm of Canty fit like a puzzle piece alongside the jazz-influenced style that characterized Cameron’s work in Soundgarden. They made room for each other, and it was tough to take your eyes off watching them work, greedily waiting for particular moments in songs where you eagerly anticipated seeing the two of them hit those fills: in “Call Me Animal,” they traded quasi-solos on the breaks between verses, while clicking back in unison for the chorus. And it was moving to see Cameron and Thayil interacting onstage together in Detroit, the last place they performed with their late bandmate, Chris Cornell. (The crowd cheered extra loud both nights when Kramer mentioned their Soundgarden affiliation in the introduction; Detroit remembers.)
Other highlights included a raucous “Rama Lama (Fa Fa Fa),” dueling Kramer/Thayil guitar solos in “Come Together,” a surprisingly riveting 15-minute (at least) exploration of the Five’s cover of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s “Starship,” steamrolling versions of “Tonight,” “I Can Only Give You Everything” (the Troggs via the Five), “Sister Anne,” and finally, a segue from “Let Me Try” into “Looking At You” which was soulful, plaintive, and had Durant dropping to his knees, grabbing fistfuls of his heart and leaving it on the stage, evoking everyone from Otis to James Brown to Solomon Burke: again, this is Detroit, and if you don’t feel it, don’t try to sell it: they know the difference and you won’t get away with it. 
At the end, after the bows, the bandmates lingered, waving at the audience, Kramer running across the lip of the stage to say his thanks and farewells. 50 years later, the spirit of the MC5 came back to Detroit, and did that band’s legend more than proud. Ears ringing, the audience spilled onto Woodward Avenue, feeling like they’d managed to grab the tiniest bit of Detroit history.