Mission of Burma stuck almost exclusively to version 2.0 in their first performance of 2008.The grand men of Boston punk rock split up in 1983 after four years of blistering noise, only to reunite twenty years later and put out two-and-counting new records, virtually matching their original output of material. But on January 18th at Music Hall in Williamsburg (QRO venue review), their most recent record, 2006’s The Obliterati, dominated the set-list, along with a handful of even newer songs. This meant that a number of their oh-so-excellent early pieces got left by the wayside, but instead, the packed house got to see the next level of the mission. What’s more, with all due respect to Spinal Tap, Burma was still possibly the loudest band on the planet.
Last January, when Mission of Burma hit the Big Apple, their set was roughly divided between old and new numbers (QRO live review). It was also roughly divided between numbers from the more prolific guitarist, Roger Miller, and the more pop-friendly bassist, Clint Conley (if you could call anything Burma has done as ‘pop’…). However, the focus on new material left the set much more in Miller’s hands, with his amp right up at the front of the stage, creating a little space at the head of the crowd where not even the hardiest fan would risk his or her ears (keeping in mind Miller’s own tinnitus, which caused the original break-up – he now wears form-fitting, near-invisible earpieces, as opposed to the giant headphones of the early days of the reunion). Tape looper Bob Weston also seemed to favor Miller’s guitars, as he looped the band’s sounds back into the speakers (a uniquely Burmese live experience).
Though in terms of audience chatter, it was drummer Peter Prescott who was the frontman. When someone in the crowd shouted between songs, “When’s the new record coming out?”, it was Prescott who jokingly replied “Uh… twenty-two years.” Prescott followed that up by preparing the crowd for the next number, the new “So Fuck It”, by declaring, “Ready to bring the hammer, motherfucker!” – only to issue a false start, and admit, “Oh wait – the hammer didn’t quite come down…” He reminded the crowd that “There’s a 99.9% chance there won’t be a Bush in the White House next year,” adding, “Think about it: things can’t go down…” And when Weston looped in a particularly… unique sound into the speakers, it was Prescott who said, “It sounds like animals being tortured.”
Opener “1001 Pleasant Dreams” lulled the crowd in with its slow burn, only to let them go wild on the following “Let Yourself Go”. “2wice” and “Donna Sumeria” filled Music Hall with an expanse that Burma toyed more with on The Obliterati, while the new “Buckets” combined a hard attack with perfect timing and a particularly interesting tape loop effect. In general, the new pieces leaned towards the hard attack; “So Fuck It” had a glass-shattering effect, while “Good Cheer” was more of a grind. Their first encore return featured an untitled/unfamiliar hard attack that saw rhythm interspersed with guitar-rock psychedelica, and staccato/bursts of craziness mix with “Looking At You”.
Between “Buckets” and “Fuck It” lay “13” and “Man In Decline”, and both saw themselves taken up a notch in the live setting. Perhaps no song grew into the space more than “13”, with its orchestral touches making a sonata of rock, and the slide into the explosive “Man In Decline” was effortless. Between “Fuck It” and “Good Cheer” fell the first non-Obliterati/new piece, “Dirt”. The only ‘oldie’ before the first encore break (and even it was also included on their 2002 return release, ONoffON), it was a welcome brush of Mission of Burma’s late seventies/early eighties ahead-of-their-time art/punk rock. And the group finished out the first set with three of the best from The Obliterati, the rolling “Careening With Conviction”, the epic “Spider’s Web”, and the unmistakable record finisher, “Nancy Reagan’s Head”.
Mission of Burma playing “13” live @ Music Hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY:
Also see them playing “Man In Decline”
The first encore return featured the two new pieces, plus two classics, “Trem Two” and “Academy Fight Song”. “Trem” was, in many ways, the blueprint for the group’s ‘too art to be punk, too punk to be art’ sound, with Miller’s echoing guitar-loop effects, along with Miller & Conley’s haunting dual vocals, all still retaining its power. And Conley’s jabbing, anthemistic “Academy”, while as catchy as anything they did this side of their original ‘big hit’, “That’s When I Reached For My Revolver”, gets extra bite with crowd participation. And for their second encore, Weston emerged from wherever he hides to work his magic during their sets to play bass on Obliterati’s alt-grunge “Good, Not Great”.
Mission of Burma playing “Trem Two” live @ Music Hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY:
Fans who first discovered Burma’s work long before their reunion – when they were just one of the great ‘gone too soon’ bands – might have been a bit disappointed that the group relied so heavily on such recent material. More Myanmar than Burma, it’s ironic that Matador is actually re-releasing their earlier material in March. But the crowd at Music Hall instead got to see where the mission goes next.