Mission of Burma | The Conformists The Firebird April 4, 2012
One-third of a century isn't too long to wait for a band to come to town, is it? Mission of Burma - the band that basically invented American indie-rock as we know it today - never got closer than Lawrence, KS during its 1979-1983 heyday. Since reforming in 2002 as a part-time but ongoing project, the band has played Missouri exactly once - at Mizzou's Springfest in May of 2004. However, the 33-year dry spell ended last night, as the band arrived for its first-ever St. Louis show.
If anyone in the packed Firebird audience was shedding tears about missing Mission of Burma in its early-1980s prime, they promptly stopped the moment this Boston trio (plus unseen sound mixer/manipulator Bob Weston) hit the stage and dove into "Dust Devil," a song from their as-yet-unreleased Unsound album. It came across as a statement of purpose: This was to be no retread of past glories, nor would it be one of those shows where everyone dreads hearing the words "...and now for one of our new songs."
After momentarily reaching back into the catalog for "Mica" from the Vs. album, the band performed four songs from 2006's The Obliterati, which is every bit the equal of their 1980s work. The very, very loud volume meant that some of the subtleties got lost in the mix, such as "Donna Sumeria's" harmonic interpolation of "I Feel Love" into its Middle Eastern drone, or "2wice"'s lonely, melancholy vocal. However, the energy level more than made up for these nuances. The members of Mission of Burma are all in their fifties, but their no-nonsense approach and commitment would shame bands one-third their age.
The whole set continued in this pattern - one beloved old song, like the eerie "Trem Two" or incendiary "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate," followed by two or three newer songs. They all fit together seamlessly, connected by Roger Miller's thundering guitar and brief, chaotic solos, Clint Conley's busy bass lines, and Peter Prescott's explosive drumming and random screaming.
The main set ended with set with "Max Ernst" and "Academy Fight Song," both of which appeared on the band's 1980 debut single. They left the stage, but as Weston let the feedback fly, it was clear there would be an encore. The band came back and played "1, 2, 3, Party!!," the opening track from 2009's The Sound The Speed The Light. Following this came the best-known two tracks from 1981's Signals, Calls and Marches EP: "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and "This Is Not A Photograph." It may have taken more than three decades for St. Louis to hear these classic songs in person, but Mission of Burma more than rewarded us for our patience with a stunning performance.
Long-running local band the Conformists was the perfect opening act. This was my first time seeing the band (despite many, many opportunities; what's my excuse?), and I was impressed by the unusual/confounding time signatures, the singer's belligerent attitude, and an almost ESP-level of unspoken communication between the band members.
Notes and setlist are on the next page.
Critic's Notebook: The other star of the night was, of course, the stage-diving Mohawked kid. As a parent, I'd be terrified to let my kids jump into a crowd of grown men and women furiously (if good-naturedly) slam-dancing, but he didn't seem to get hurt. After the band left the stage, he reached up, grabbed Roger Miller's microphone, and tried to lead the crowd in a chant of "One more song! One more song!" Just as he began to speak, the door to the tiny Firebird dressing room opened and the band reappeared. The kid looked like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he shyly vanished.
Setlist: 1) Dust Devil 2) Mica 3) Donna Sumeria 4) 2wice 5) Spider's Web 6) Let Yourself Go 7) Trem Two 8) Semi-Pseudo Sorta Plan 9) Sectionals in Mourning 10) Red 11) That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate 12) Comes Undone 13) Good Cheer 14) Max Ernst 15) Academy Fight Song Encore: 16) 1,2,3, Partyy! 17) That's When I Reach for My Revolver 18) This Is Not A Photograph
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