For 50 years, “Kick out the jams, motherf–kers” has been one of rock ’n’ roll’s most ecstatic, transcendent rallying cries. When it was first heard blasting out of the streets of Detroit, it went beyond music. MC5, or Motor City 5, the Detroit rock band that helped paved the way for punk, employed it as a cry to their fellow youth – for energy, for justice, for racial equality and yes, for some righteous, roaring jams.
Does MC5’s music still embody that call to action and exuberance? Can a band that aspired to spark revolutions both political and musical light those same fires today? Those questions lingered in the air as the crowd awaited the group to take the 9:30 Club stage on September 13.
For the latter question, the answer is, “Probably not.” People’s politics and goals change with time. In fact, the most political the group got was when lead guitarist and founding member “Brother” Wayne Kramer sermonized about the participatory nature of democracy, imploring the crowd to go vote before launching into the swinging, proto-punk “The American Ruse” from MC5’s second album Back in the USA. The band has little reason to try and instigate the same musical battles it waged across Midwestern concert halls at the onset of the 1970s because generally speaking, they won.
Kramer and the original MC5’s victory is seen most prominently in the very musicians who currently make up the band. Joining Brother Wayne for the MC50th, the all-star rock supergroup celebrating the Motor City 5’s fiftieth, included Soundgarden’s lead guitarist and human tidal wave of sound Kim Thayil, Faith No More’s Billy Gould on bass, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty on drums and, relative newcomer, Marcus Durant of Zen Guerillas out front as an eerily ideal stand-in for original vocalist Rob Tyner. All of these bands had longer, more successful and prominent careers than MC5’s originals, yet they all joined collectively to revive the music – that’s how deeply ingrained this band is to rock’s DNA.
At the 9:30 Club, these all-star musicians did not gather to fight yesterday’s political battles but to remind everyone in the room – from the graying hippies to the Washingtonians in their finest punk rock threads – how potent this music is. The supergroup ripped through MC5’s breakthrough album Kick Out The Jams, bringing everything from backyard boogie garage rock of “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa” to the metallic boom of “Come Together.”
Kramer himself best tried to channel the spirit of 1968, leaping and dancing across the stage while unleashing his signature high octane, high register steam whistle solos. Gould and Canty conjured the crushing force of Detroit’s factory days in the rhythm section while Thayil, who usually summons sound waves like tsunamis in Soundgarden, stepped back into rollicking, prototypical rock guitar shedding.
The surprise of the night came as MC50 closed their run through of the famed album with “Starship,” the nine-minute-plus, space-meets-early-noise-rock closer that features a verse of poetry by the Afrofuturist jazz leader Sun Ra. As the song’s familiar verse-chorus-verse structure gave way to amorphous, borderline atonal, pulsating free fusion, the MC5’s spark shone through brightest.
You can hear echoes of “Starship” and “Kick Out the Jams” across the frontiers of rock today. In fact, it was appropriately reminiscent of the avant jazz stylings in some of the work of DC’s own Priests.
As Durant wailed on a miniature saxophone and Kramer wandered cosmically along thefretboard, the MC50th embodied the original message the MC5 pushed, one that punk embraced and spread to a whole generation: freedom. MC50 served a reminder for everyone in the crowd, anyone who would listen, that the central promise of American music – of the United States of America – is to create what you want.
It was a joyful, noisy reminder that American music, from avant-garde jazz and death metal to Lady Gaga and Usher, celebrates at its very core the idea of liberty we all cherish.
For more information about the MC5 and the MC50, check them out here.