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Wayne Kramer and his punk all-stars resurrect the MC5’s revolutionary joy at the Varsity

Wayne Kramer with the MC50

Wayne Kramer with the MC50 Robert Hein

Like a lot of young people obsessed with loud rock music in the waning days of the 20th century, I spent a lot of time looking at photographs of the MC5. (And, of course, trying to dress like them, to get the fringe to fall over my eyes just like Fred “Sonic” Smith.)

It was a lot easier to look at photos than to actually hear the band’s records at the time, but the consolation was that the MC5 looked cooler than almost any band in the world. In the photo I'm thinking of here the five of them are shirtless, wearing bandoliers, arms crossed, with badges pinned to their actual flesh. They look less like the Young Rascals than like a revolutionary cell plotting to kidnap Mayor Daley on the eve of the 1968 Democratic convention.

So I guess I always assumed they were a serious bunch of dudes who comported themselves accordingly on stage, like stripping machine guns or running an obstacle course in a training montage. After seeing the MC50, guitarist Wayne Kramer’s traveling all-star revival of the MC5’s first record, Kick out the Jams, at the Varsity on Tuesday night, I can dispel that idea entirely.

Kramer, 74 years old in a trimmed haircut and black band-collar shirt, exudes complete joy onstage. What was it Marx said? It’s a revolutionary act to embrace the universal right to be freely active, to affirm oneself, to enjoy spontaneous activity, to pursue the free development of your physical and mental energy. Joy is a revolutionary notion, and that’s a lot of what was going on with Wayne Kramer. In fact, he’s an almost goofy presence onstage—he pogoed around grinning, flailing his arms, and literally turned around and wiggled his butt a few times.

Kramer’s current band—guitarist Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, drummer Brendan Canty of Fugazi, bassist Billy Gould of Faith No More, and Zen Guerillas vocalist Marcus Durant filling in for the late Rob Tyner—all absorbed the MC5’s influence growing up. Kramer introduced them onstage with an almost avuncular sense of pride, albeit delivered with the cadence of a boxing announcer, listing their hometowns and band pedigrees. In fact, when Kramer didn’t think the audience’s applause at the mention of Soundgarden was rapturous enough, he repeated it more slowly: Sooooouuuunnnnddddgaaaaaaaardeeeennnn. I'm sure these guys have known these songs for years (I don’t doubt that Soundgarden had a few rattling MC5 covers in their basement days) and it shows in their delivery.

The show opened with a recording of J.C. Crawford’s invocation from the start of Kick Out the Jams, a quick sermon on whether you’re going to be part of the problem or whether you’re going to be part of the solution that really is one of the great pieces of pop agit-prop. Kramer kind of pantomimed the recording as it played, so initially you couldn’t be sure if you were going to get a respectful museum replica of the record or a playful interrogation of it.

Fortunately, it was more the latter. The band opened with the lead tracks from the 1969 album, segueing from “Rambling Rose” to an extended “Kick Out the Jams,” then went through the rest of the record slightly out of order. (“Motor City Is Burning” popped up earlier than it appears on the album.)

One of the highlights of this portion of the show was the song I always used to skip over when I’d put Kick Out the Jams on at parties in college: “Starship,” the eight-minute Sun Ra adaptation where the MC5 tried to put aside their garage-band roots to embrace a more revolutionary sort of experimental music informed by free jazz and electronic music. It’s just OK on record; I could always tell I was missing something but I appreciated the expansiveness anyway. Live, though, “Starship” is a more fulfilling experience.

Kramer has pointed out in interviews for years that the MC5 were much tighter and much better musicians than their psychedelic-era peers and their punk-rock successors, and he’s right. This particular band, too, is made up of guys who play heavy, punk-influenced music, but who also like weird time signatures and cross-genre experiments. So they’ve got an above-average capacity to stretch out on this type of space jam without letting it get too woolly or dull, keeping that sci-fi proton drive powered underneath like a solid, union-made Detroit piston engine.

“Starship”’s optimistic vision of psychedelic space exploration is pleasant to revisit, too, from the perspective of 50 years later. Remember when the idea of cosmic wayfaring was the province of hippies, weirdos, and mystics? I kind of drifted out of my body a little bit during the middle passage, and envisioned a fantasy of a mass of humanity rushing Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ venture capital escape spaceships, liberating them with a cry of “kick out the jams, motherfuckers,” and sending them and every other Silicon Valley futurist to a John Sinclair-led re-education camp, before sailing off together into a boundless cosmic paradise. We can dream, I guess.

Kramer did bring it back to Earth at the end, though, with an appeal not to guns, drugs, and fucking in the streets, as the memorable Detroit slogan of the era went, but to participate in democratic processes and vote, vote, vote. It was the only time electoral politics were explicitly present, but the crowd was primed for it.

Even in my lifetime, there’s been a sort of shifting opinion about whether the MC5’s revolutionary sloganeering was a facile, distracting pose or a righteous blast of prophetic fury. It’s usually the former during the more complacent stretches of Democratic administrations, but I think it’s shifted back around to the latter, which seems right for these times. During any period, though, the revolutionary message goes down a lot easier when it’s delivered by a man so consumed by the bliss of playing this music he made 50 years ago that he can’t help but bound across the stage, kicking out his feet and waving his arms with joyous abandon.

Critic’s bias: A longtime fan. I had a homemade MC5 shirt in high school, before they became more commercially available after Rachel wore one on Friends. (I’m not trying to sound like a snob here—I’d have gladly gone down to the mall to buy one if it’d been an option.) Sadly, I chose the font poorly, so it looked like it said “MCS,” which I think people thought was a telecom company or something.

The crowd: “Commies and mommies,” in the words of Rachel Nagy of the opening band the Detroit Cobras. There were a lot of both, and otherwise a smattering of younger boomers and older X-ers in the standard rock show uniform of leather jackets, All-Stars, and black hoodies. The MC5 are funny in that way—a boomer band all the way that was more broadly embraced by Gen X-ers—so the age range was between your youngest cool aunt to your oldest cool cousin.

Setlist
Ramblin' Rose
Kick Out The Jams
Come Together
Motor City Is Burning
Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)
Borderline
I Want You Right Now
Starship
Tonight
High School
Gotta Keep Movin'
Poison
I Can Only Give You Everything (Them cover)
Call Me Animal

Encore
Sister Anne
Play Video
Let Me Try
Play Video
Looking at You