Mission Of Burma at Shank Hall
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Shank Hall has an interesting atmosphere: It’s Milwaukee’s own small-town oasis in the midst of the city, what with the blues-rock between-set tunes, the signed portraits on the walls, and the abundance of cover bands that play there. But there’s nothing sleazy or dilapidated about it—the chairs are extra comfy and the sound is always great, and if you look at the stage from certain angles you can have flashbacks from the great shows that went down here in the ’90s, when things were a bit different. As it happens, great shows are still going down here, particularly the past several weeks, and Mission Of Burma found itself playing under the iconic tiny Stonehenge pillars Wednesday night.
If any band from the early ’80s post-punk scene completely transcended genre, MoB was it—even the trio’s ancient material sounds contemporary and vital in the new century, and that 20-year hiatus didn’t degrade MoB’s style and ethos. The three personalities onstage come off as winningly self-aware, happy in the knowledge of how legendary their original run was, and how well they’ve been able to tie it all together in this fantastically improbable reprise. The small crowd was appreciative from the get-go, outright shouting thanks for making the trek to Milwaukee, to which bassist Clint Conley responded, “I love this city! Magnificent lake, cracker-crust pizza—come on!” (Nailed it!)
But drummer Peter Prescott was not about to be outdone in the banter department. As a player, he’s a wizard, with the unorthodox compositional intuition of Dale Crover combined with the stylistic palette of Bill Bruford. He shares singing duties with his two comrades and the beat never suffers, but the moment during “Let Yourself Go” when Prescott started screaming “SCOTT WALKER, I WANNA FUCK YOU UP THE ASS!” was certainly his marquee bit of the night.
As far as guitarist Roger Miller goes, the memo about the un-hipness of guitar solos must have gone missing in his spam folder. He’s so good at crafting peculiar original riffs, but you don’t get a sense of his improvisational prowess until you see him live. He’s got a little bit of Larry LaLonde in him, jagged and loopy but possessed of the melodicism of metal. He attacks his lead opportunities like a raccoon getting into a can of sardines, from Hendrix-ian feedback manipulation to blissfully catchy spontaneity reminiscent of Curt Kirkwood.
The blatant good-natured humor that runs through MoB’s performance takes the edge off the understated complexity of the playing, so the effect is very raw despite the undeniably progressive nature of the band. “Best of all worlds” isn’t much of a stretch. After a performance like this (though not much more than an hour), a person might forget that Mission Of Burma has a quasi-famous song, the oft-covered “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” It’s one of the most simplistic songs in the band’s repertoire, and given the sometimes spacey and intricate nature of the prog-punk extravaganza that just went down, it was an anomaly. But as the band broke into it as the final song of the night, the only curious part was the crowd’s subdued reaction. Doesn’t anybody thrash around maniacally and belt out the chorus any more? Maybe it was stunned reverence regarding the show overall. That seems fair.