Wayne Kramer and MC5 Come Storming Out on ‘Heavy Lifting’ Tour
The latest lineup of the iconic group made its live debut Thursday night at El Club in their hometown of Detroit, not particularly far from the Grande Ballroom where the MC5 recorded their landmark debut album Kick Out the Jams. They're still led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the only original member left in the lineup and one of two still alive.
On this night, MC5 delivered a characteristically shredding 85 minutes of hard rock, taking plenty of musical chances and taking no prisoners as they tore through 16 songs. The MC5 sampled all three of the band's original albums from 1969-71, while previewing two songs from the upcoming Heavy Lifting – the title track and "The American Ruse."
"Some bands take two years between albums," Kramer told the El Club crowd before the group played "Heavy Lifting" on Thursday. "Some bands take five years between albums. We take 50."
Kramer made no mention of the Rock Hall, which has now had the MC5 on its ballot six times. Earlier in the day, he posted social media messages thanking those who voted for the band, declaring "each of you are true fans of Rock & Roll." Kramer told UCR that "either way it’ll be OK with me" prior to Wednesday's announcement of this year's inductees, while acknowledging a softening of his once-dismissive views about being inducted.
"I've gone through all the arguments and cynicism and criticism," Kramer said, "and, listen, if the MC5 is recognized for their contribution I think that would be a good thing. There's a lot of people out there who love the band and love what the band represents. To have that appreciation confirmed wouldn't be a bad thing – but we've been here before, so let's see what happens."
Instead, the band concentrated on making a case at the El Club for why the Rock Hall honor is overdue. They were poignantly brought on by Ricky Derminer, the younger brother of late MC5 frontman Rob Tyner. (Derminer introduced Kramer to Tyner nearly 60 years ago in Lincoln Park, Mich.) Meanwhile, drummer Winston A. Watson Jr. appeared in place of Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins, who had to sit out the two-week tour at the last minute for personal reasons.
They played in front of a banner declaring "We Are All MC5," covering a great deal of ground while blending the proto-punk of "Looking at You" and "Call Me Animal" with the psychedelic fuzz of "Poison," "Future/Now" and "Come Together" and the garage-y grandeur of "Rocket Reducer N. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)." The group touched on its under-recognized pop chops with "Shakin' Street" and "Baby Won't Ya," while new frontman Brad Brooks found on emotive spark in bluesy numbers such as "Motor City is Burning" and "Let Me Try."
Primed from three days of rehearsal, the new MC5 sounded tight but rough and rowdy in all the right places – particularly on "Sister Anne." It was one of several songs that showed the guitar-tandem potency of Kramer and the versatile Steve Salas, who's been an American Idol music director and has also worked with Mick Jagger, George Clinton, Justin Timberlake and others.
They had to stop and re-start “Tonight,” with Kramer laughing as he asked the crowd to "forget that happened." Elsewhere, he remained the primary soloist, but Kramer and Salas still found plenty of spots to tear it up together, including the latter part of "Looking at You."
Kramer tells UCR that "this is the best band yet," after leading the all-star MC50 on tour in 2018-19. "We're just at the beginning now of cracking the code on what we can do, but the whole thing seems to fit together really well. Rehearsals have been going fantastic. I'm shocked at how good the stuff sounds."
Resuming the MC5, Kramer said, "was really born out of the pandemic" and "a real pit of despair" he found himself in after four years of Donald Trump. He heeded his therapist's advice to "do something creative" and began writing songs with Brooks. He also wrote with Alejandro Escovedo, Tom Morello, Kesha, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against and began recording tracks with producer Bob Ezrin, with whom he worked on Alice Cooper's Detroit Stories album.
"The whole thing kind of snowballed on its own," Kramer said. "At a certain point everybody says, 'Boy, this could be an MC5 record."
He also felt that it was a perfect time for the MC5 to ride again amidst a landscape rife with political discord, challenges to voting rights, culture wars and myriad other issues.
"We are in such a dangerous time for our country that I'm gonna have to pull out all the stops and use the most powerful tools that I have at my disposal," Kramer told UCR. "The MC5 has always represented action and commitment and principle. I think we're going to need all of that and more if our democracy is to survive. This was the time to reignite the MC5 to carry the necessary message for today."
Kramer echoed those sentiments on Thursday night, warning the crowd that "these fascists are not joking. They'll take our democracy away from us, without our permission. So we need to vote like we've never voted before. We need to get up and take action like we've never taking action before. I'm imploring you to get to work, step up, save this city, save this country, save this planet."
The MC5 have about 16 or 17 songs ready for Heavy Lifting, according to Kramer, but he admits "we'll have to cut that down. We'll save some of them for special releases, B-sides or something. I don't want to hear anybody for more than 40, 45 minutes, maybe 50 minutes – especially me. We're about two-thirds through the process. We cut all the tracks pretty quickly, and now we're just refining things."
Original MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson came out of semi-retirement to play on two tracks for the forthcoming LP, and was expected to join the group on Thursday for "Kick Out the Jams" but was a no-show.
The MC5 now have seven more stops booked through May 15, and Kramer hopes to return for more dates later in the year. In the meantime, he's continuing work on a film score for an adaptation of Arthur Miller's short story The Performance, while looking further down the road.
"I'm already thinking about what the next record will sound like, and what the possibilities are for touring if COVID continues to recede," Kramer said. "We might be able to get back to a regular go out on the road for a couple months every year. I'd like to do that for awhile."
MC5, May 5, 2022 at El Club in Detroit
"Baby Won't Ya"
"Motor City Is Burning"
"Call Me Animal"
"Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)"
"Looking at You"
"Let Me Try"
"The American Ruse"
"Kick Out the Jams"