Turning Rebellion into Money: A Tribute to Joe Strummer
Featuring The 9/16's, Rude Girl, Greg Grease, BNLX, Gabe Douglas & Silverback Colony, Two Harbors, Wild!!Wing, Al Church & State and Jeremy Hanson & James Diers
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, February 1, 2014
The near-mythical status that the late, great rebel-rocker Joe Strummer cultivated in his years as the frontman for the Clash and accomplished later solo work cast as long shadow that reaches far beyond Punk. His was "the only band that mattered," after all, and Strummer's songwriting and crusading activism won him fans and many musical communities outside of the one he defined.
Tracing those roots of his influence into local bands with a wide range of styles is one of the reasons that the annual Turning Rebellion into Money benefit is such a pleasure to watch. Link that to a very worthy cause: Free Arts Minnesota, who gives traumatized youth a chance to heal through art and you have a tribute show that even the deliberately humble Joe would approve of.
The event's organizers, including Ali Lozoff of MPR and James Diers, kept things moving at a relatively brisk pace, mostly restricting the night's various sets of music to short song blocks performed by the ten or so acts on the bill. Rather than restrict the lineup to rock groups with obvious Strummer debts, Lozoff and Diers seemed to allow anyone and everyone with an enthusiasm the cause or the material take a swing, including the moody, mellow pop of Diers and his Halloweeen, Alaska bandmate Jake Hanson.
While their respective performances did a good job of preparing the audience for the diverse range of interpretations they were about to witness that evening, Hanson and Diers left this reviewer craving some of the more bombastic songs from the Clash's catalog, so it was a nice treat to witness Al Church and State bang out some more uptempo stuff. Their take on "Clampdown" from London Calling was easily one of the best versions of the night, remaining fairly faithful to the stellar source material while still injecting some of glam rock tendencies that Church is known for.
State drummer Gambit Meeks and bassist Matthew Sandstedt deserve some real credit for capturing the difficult rhythm section work of Topper Headon and Paul Simonon as well. Meeks was able to nail Headon's incredible rolling tom fill at the start of "I Fought the Law," making it another early highlight from their set. Frontman Al Church put down the guitar for this show and seemed to have fun twisting his voice around the Junior Murvin classic "Police and Thieves" and doing some big-time rock 'n' roll posturing to rile up the crowd. Guest member Cole from the Secret Stash Records house band also brought his considerable talents as a saxophonist to their set, fleshing out some of the subtle horn charts the Clash were prone to adding.
Wild!!Wing probably isn't the first group you think of when you hear Aby Wolf's name, but the half-joking project she formed with her main man Josh Journey-Heinz and Matthew Kazama of Birthday Suits on drums is still a great vehicle to witness the singer's remarkable talents. Starting with the apocalyptic reggae grooves of "Armagideon Time" from The Clash's Combat Rock, Wild!!Wing mostly stuck to more dance-oriented material, also whipping through "Magnificent Seven" and "Rock the Casbah" in their short set.
Journey-Heinz, who normally plays guitar in the group, held down the funky low-end and cracked wise, joking that it was Kazama's lifelong dream to play reggae on the Mainroom stage. While the boys in the band did a great job, especially when guitarist Chris Smalley imitated the digital percussion on "Casbah" by beatboxing, any group that backs Aby's singular voice is bound to be a little overshadowed. Seeming to have a lot of fun with the whole premise, Wolf gave a slightly eerie take on "Armagideon" and her imitation of the classic Strummer scream in "Casbah" was pitch-perfect.
While local dream-pop four-piece Two Harbors have a tendency to look like they just woke up onstage, the did an admirable job with some of my favorite Clash material in style much closer to the source than their own. While the plaintive, Mick Jones-penned "Stay Free" definitely played to their strengths; the group also tore out a totally faithful take on "Career Opportunities," showcasing a fiery, highly energetic side that I'd love to see more of in their original tunes.[page]
Gabe Douglas of the 4onthefloor fame has a reputation for live intensity that he definitely lived up to during his set with Silverback Colony. Bashing out the dire "Know Your Rights" to start off their set, Douglas and co. actually had their best moments with Strummer's later material with the Mescaleros. They made the mellow "Silver and Gold," which Strummer originally penned for Johnny Cash, into a honky-tonk bar band anthem, and also did a really solid version of "Coma Girl," one of Joe's best songs from his post-Clash period. Showing a bit of sloppiness on "Guns of Brixton," Douglas mumbled through a few half-forgotten verses but never let his energy flag, continuing to push his massive baritone voice all the way to the back of the club. The group rallied with a three-guitar take on "Train in Vain" that gave the song a bit of a ZZ-Top boogie-rock feel, which felt authentic to Douglas and Silverback Colony's more Americana-influenced style.
The night culminated in the back-to-back sets of BNLX and Greg Grease, who both held the biggest crowds of the evening and made the most confident strides with their interpretations. Ackerson and BNLX stuck mostly to material off of the Clash's self-titled first record, adding their noisey, shoegazing perspective to "Garageland" and "Bored with the USA" to kick things off. Joining the band for this show was none other than 89.3 the Current's Jim McGuinn, who backed Ackerson up on guitar with a fury. BNLX's angular punk style was a particularly good fit for "Hateful," which might have been my single favorite cover of the night. By squaring-off the song's Bo Diddley beat and adding squalls of feedback to the solo, BNLX really made the London Calling standout their own, and carried that energy over to the epic "Complete Control," one of the Clash's greatest songs from their early period. Needless to say, it was glorious, and McGuinn even shouted a winking "You're my Guitar Hero!" at Ackerson during the climactic solo section.
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from the buzz-making local rapper Greg Grease's set at this benefit, but he did not disappoint. Enlisting a band of close friends and cousins he called Zulu Zuluu, Grease put on an inspired reimagining of some of the funkier pieces of Joe Strummer's catalog that really went beyond just covering a song. Starting with a deconstructed take on "Ghetto Defendant," Zulu Zuluu gave the song a bit of a Marijuana Deathsquads flavor, using skittering drum patterns provided by MPC player Trelly Mo and highly distorted vocals by Grease. "Get Down Moses" from Streetcore allowed the group to play around with the song's reggae backbeat and worked as a great showcase for DJ Just 9's deft scratching and Keyboardist Taylor Johnson's smooth, John Legend-esque voice.
Grease, always the star of the show however, butted in with an excellent verse that showcased the best of his silky-tough style and really captured the thrust of Strummer's own lyrics. Ending off with a boom-bap, Parliament-esque version of "Overpowered by Funk," Grease and Zulu Zuluu truly embraced the innovative spirit of Strummer that led him to experiment in early hip-hop and electronic music. Joe would have no doubt been thrilled to count a hip-hop artist of Grease's caliber as a fan and disciple, and it would be great to hear the MC and his group do more collaborations along similar lines.
Following Greg and Zulu Zuluu's performance, this started to wind down as the crowd became thinner. Good thing local Clash tribute band Rude Girl were on-deck to provide some much-needed levity after the headiness of the previous two performers. Featuring a lineup of some seven-odd women, playing a diverse range of instruments including upright bass, violin, clarinet and oboe. Most of their show was just a good, old-fashioned run through the Clash classics. "Four Horsemen" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go" both ripped, but the best of all was their run through "Safe European Home" the best Clash rocker nobody knows about from Give 'Em Enough Rope. While they occasionally veered into slightly corny territory, it's so obvious Rude Girl has a deep love for Strummer's music that one couldn't help but be charmed by their set.
After another long turnaround the last act of the night, The 9/16, came up and delivered something of an anticlimactic set. The supergroup of sorts, featuring names like Jeremy Ylvisaker of Alpha Consumer, shuffled up, threw their gear down and did "Pressure Drop" and "Rudie Can't Fail" without ever really seeming interested in doing so. Luckily, the band redeemed themselves by inviting Rude Girl back to the stage, along with a few other faces from previous acts for a big sing-along on "London Calling."
While the Turning Rebellion Into Money benefit was sometimes spotty, and probably a little long, one can say the same about many of the Clash's finest albums, and the moments of genius contained within Saturday night's show were well worth the filler. Especially when the organizers took the microphone to dedicate the event officially in the name of Adam Levy's son Daniel, a troubled young Clash superfan whose tragic and untimely death was a catalyst for this annual series of shows. The moment was bracing and heartwarming, and reminded me that maybe, just maybe, Levy and Saint Joe Strummer had a chance to meet on the other side.
Critc's Bias: I'm enough of a Strummer/Clash dork to tell you which school Strummer went to in his youth, and why that's significant.
The Crowd: A little thin, left me wondering if this show would be better suited to a place like The Turf Club.
Random Notebook Dump: No mosh-pits, gobbing or pogo-ing here, which is a shame because it would have been really fun to watch.