What's left of The MC5 kick out those jams again with help (and hindrance) from Dave Vanian, Ian Astbury and a razor-sharp Lemmy

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Motor Boys Motor

The MC5 and Friends

The 100 Club, London

THURSDAY MARCH 13, 2003

When the motorbike police started lining up ready to charge, in Chicago, 1968, The MC5 finished “Kick Out The Jams” before they ran. They came together in a time that, it seems, can’t be got back, when street politics, guitar-playing and a punk attitude could be a rock band’s inseparable parts. If he’d been asked, and been alive, Joe Strummer would surely have been first on stage singing with their remnants tonight. As it is, the whispered substitutes for legendarily Afro-ed singer Rob Tyner and co-guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, both dead before the last century was done, never show. There’ll be other surprises, good and bad, before this night is over. But all that ever really matters is the three men who take the stage first, unexpectedly together after 30 years, because, in the way of things, Levi’s Jeans are promoting an MC5 T-shirt.

Michael Davis, bass, still runs in deeper waters than that. The oldest MC, crew-cut and leathery, like a B-movie veteran in a Tarantino film, he alone here takes every second seriously, and in his stride. Drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson stays invisible behind a pillar. Wayne Kramer, guitar, in black-rimmed glasses and suit, is tight, clinical, the all-business pro. “From De-troit, Michigan!” he introduces the band, before acknowledging why they can never be The MC5, and won’t try. “We’re here to celebrate Fred Smith, and the work of Brother Rob Tyner. They’re here right now in our hearts, and they’re here in this music.” Brother Davis is asked to add a word. “I don’t know what I’m gonna say,” he rumbles, awkward. “So let’s play.”

First guest up is Nick Royale of Swedish rockers The Hellacopters, baseball-capped and adequate. Next is some kind of bizarre Bono impersonator, with a jet-black, piled quiff and shades. It’s The Damned’s Dave Vanian, it transpires, a more reasonable guest for the punk godfathers than Ian Astbury, who takes time off from “The Doors” to lend his one-size-fits-all rent-a-rock-roar, unfortunately, to “Kick Out The Jams”. Only when Lemmy unexpectedly stalks past me, looking almost nervous, does a man who understands the shoes he’s filling seize the stage. “How ya doin’?” comes a voice scraped raw by cigarettes, or straight razors. “Well, we’ll soon fix that…” Coal-black eyes somehow flash, it’s like Bill The Butcher’s up there savaging “Sister X”, and then “Born In The USA.”, a near-half-century-old Chuck Berry song that somehow still tips the MC3 into a loose, rebel roll, and the crowd into rapture. That’s when the night stops being a museum piece, the music’s breathing on its own now. “Vision getting crossed…,” I scrawl in my notes.

Meanwhile, the MCs just play the tunes, bending and shaking with the simple gut-squall of “The American Ruse” (a nailed lie that just gets bigger), “Shakin’ Street”, “Tonight”. Kramer sings sometimes, no nearer than anyone else to rolling back the years and making this music of insurrection, music that gave you five seconds to choose sides, for life. His attempt at Sun Ra cosmic consciousness-raising, in an impromptu encore of free jazz squonks?Davis: “We didn’t rehearse one more motherfuckin’ song”?doesn’t lift off, either. But the grace with which these three men who started so much grasp their old roles again, sneaking smiles at each other as it slots into place and one more crowd sweats and leaps in a basement at midnight, is something to see. The Motor City didn’t make many better; and they have some juice in them yet.