By Paul Robicheau
“Once we have the chemistry in the room, it’ll come back,” says the Zulus’ guitarist Rich Gilbert.
The Zulus face uncertainties as a matter of course. When the Boston band sprang from the core remains of Human Sexual Response in 1982, even choosing a name proved problematic. Wild Kingdom fit the bill until there came a legal warning from Mutual of Omaha, sponsor of a wildlife TV show by that name. The rockers transformed into Gospel Birds, which turned out to be Patti LaBelle’s publishing company. Finally, as the Zulus, they ruled the clubs as one of that decade’s most exciting live acts.
So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that the Zulus’ Sept. 3 reunion at the Paradise Rock Club — the band’s first show in a quarter-decade – still navigates pandemic concerns, having already been postponed on three previous occasions. The group initially planned its return for September 2019 and pushed it to the fateful month of March 2020 — and then September again. Now, another year later, attending the show will require printed proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within 48 hours.
Guitarist Rich Gilbert acknowledges the false starts of the past two years mirror the group’s early name stumbles. “We had all these hurdles,” Gilbert says from his Maine home, “but once [the show] happens, it’s going to be smooth sailing.”
There’s ample reason to expect things to click once Gilbert convenes for a week of rehearsals with vocalist Larry Bangor, drummer Malcolm Travis, and bassist Rich Cortese, who’s flying in from Italy. “Once we have the chemistry in the room, it’ll come back,” says the guitarist, who recreated his Zulus pedal setup on a Ouija board and acquired a Squire Stratocaster like his ax from the band’s last years.
However, the leading cause for anticipation is Cockfight in a Bullring, a stunning three-CD retrospective that the group packaged to sell at the show, though it’s available at Gilbert’s website. A completist’s dream, the 51-track set includes one disc from Radiobeat Studios before bassist Chris Maclachlan left the band for law school, serving as a guide for Cortese and led by six tracks used for an eponymous 1985 EP on California’s soon-defunct Greenworld label. Another disc from late ’80s sessions at Fort Apache offers bristly contrast to the uncharacteristically polished Down on the Floor, a 1989 album produced by Bob Mould for Slash Records that failed to win much national attention despite positive reviews.
It didn’t help that the Zulus filled an odd void that followed post-punk, preceded alt-rock and grunge, and drew on classic rock like Led Zeppelin. “We were that entrée that didn’t really go with any of the other dishes at the table,” Gilbert says. He rode Cortese’s deep, edgy bass and Travis’s taut-as-a-tripwire drumming with brawny chordal swaths and squiggly sonic icing, while Bangor’s evocative lyrics and frantic/brooding vocals ratcheted up the tension, especially onstage.
In fact, Cockfight in a Bullring culminates in a ferocious live disc that documents the quartet’s farewell show at the Rat in 1991. It blasts off with a breathless trio of high-energy numbers centered by a slashing “Kings in the Queen City” (where Bangor melodically howls “We’re not making memories, this is history!”) before dropping into a jackhammered “Skinny Dip.” The 16-song set detours through the woozy breather “Back to Sleep” and smoldering buildup “Totem Pole” before closing with another triple bang capped by “I Can’t Wait to Tell You the News,” riddled with Gilbert’s oscillating dive-bombs and Bangor’s exclamatory glee.
“We wanted to be a band that you couldn’t ignore,” Gilbert says. “The unspoken communication onstage was strong. We all had the feeling when we hit the stage that even though we had a set list in front of us, we never really knew what was going to happen in the next hour — let’s go where the wind takes us.”
After that Rat show and a mid-’90s reunion at T.T. the Bear’s Place, the Zulus blew in different directions. Travis joined Mould’s band Sugar. Gilbert worked with Tanya Donelly and Frank Black & the Catholics before he moved to Nashville and played old-style country. But after meeting up with Bangor (and Maclachlan) for reunions of Human Sexual Response, they decided to do the same with the Zulus. “Everybody’s getting older,” Gilbert says, “and Larry and Rich and Malcolm were all, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” Little did we know it would be two years later.”
Now he muses, “Who knows if we’ll ever play again,” and predicts “a pretty long show, so people won’t be too disappointed that we didn’t play this song or that song.” That sounds a lot like the sprawling Cockfight in a Bullring, which prompts Gilbert to proclaim, “I’d rather give people more than they can stand than less.”
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.