The celebrated post-punk band Mission of Burma played a benefit show for Somerville Local First at the Regent Theatre. Their instrumental interplay is more intuitive than ever.
By Brett Milano
Just before going out on Sunday night to the Regent Theatre — an evening when the world was being prodded to remember the Beatles — I made a snarky Facebook post saying that “It’s a perfect night to celebrate that fab band that we’ve loved for all these years: Mission of Burma.” My implication was that Boston’s beloved experimental rockers somehow operated in a different universe than the Fab Four.
But as John and Paul once said, I should have known better. Because the current wave of Beatlemania apparently hit Burma as well, and that’s when they reached for their Revolver. Or more specifically, for a Revolver-era single: “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” which kicked off the trio’s encore on Sunday night (sung respectively by drummer Peter Prescott and guitarist Roger Miller, with bassist Clint Conley doing his best McCartney-isms throughout). The band’s resident smart-aleck, Prescott yelled out “Sacrilege!” afterward — but in fact both tunes ranked with the most faithful covers Burma’s ever done; the distorted guitar lead on “Writer” was right up Miller’s alley. And with Burma’s soundman Bob Weston doing live tapeloops, it may be the first time “Rain’s” been played live with the backwards vocals in the right place.
One of the night’s other standouts also brought Beatle days to mind, though the song wasn’t Beatlesque at all. But “This is Hi-Fi” concerned a very mid-‘60s lyrical subject, the space-age fascination with recorded sound. And the song hinges on a single-note, staccato guitar lick that makes me think of the satellite noises that used to introduce AM-radio news bulletins. Like the rest of Burma’s last album Unsound (released in mid-2012), the song swerves away from pop conventions, with big, dissonant outbursts between the choruses. But there’s always something improbably catchy about Burma’s out-there moments, and maybe that’s where the Beatles’ mark comes in: It’s the difference between random noise and noise that swings.
For those keeping track, Mission of Burma – who broke up in 1983, and reformed in 2001 – have now been reunited more than three times as long as they were originally together. Which means their instrumental interplay is now more intuitive than ever — nobody ever careens off the road without the road joining them. They’re also making better use of the combined vocals, with a few surprising flashes of three-part harmony. And sometimes, as on the oldie “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” it was just a matter of all three members screaming at the right moment.
They’ve also kept the setlists unpredictable, always playing a couple well-known tunes but seldom doing them all (“Academy Fight Song” and “This Is Not a Photograph” were played on Sunday; “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” wasn’t). Before the show, local Burma expert Eric Van named the frenetic “He Is, She Is” as one of the few old Burma songs that hasn’t been played since the reunion — and sure enough, it turned up on Sunday. Following that was an even bigger surprise: The Conley tune “Eyes of Men,” which was demoed in the early days but never formally recorded; Van reckons it was last played around 1980. A moment to mark for trainspotters, a fine and moody song for everybody else.
Prescott played an opening set with his other band Minibeast, a mostly-instrumental band that downplays guitar rock in favor of Prescott’s other passions: Soundtrack exotica, German experimental rock via Can and Faust, dub reggae and psychedelia. The opening tune alone covered all those bases – beginning as an ambient drone with the houselights still on, then gaining momentum as a pulsing bassline provided the hook. Prescott moved from synthesizer to drums and finally guitar, slashing out power chords while shouting one line of lyric: “This is an invitation!” An invitation to what, exactly? Maybe to join them in letting the imagination flow.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.