Rock Album Review: Joe Strummer Live At Acton Hall — Clash Fans Rejoice!
By Matt Hanson
Joe Strummer is clearly having a ball that night, in fine form: cracking jokes and proudly announcing his bandmates.
Clash fans everywhere can rejoice at the news that Joe Strummer & the Mescalero’s 2002 concert in London’s Acton Hall, previously only available in vinyl for record store day, is now available in wider formats — CD, streaming, and so on. Appropriately enough, given Strummer’s populist politics, it was as part of a benefit for striking firefighters. Any live recording of the Mescaleros is interesting, but this one carries an extra level of importance for a few reasons.
The first reason would have to be that the recording is, unlike some of the older bootlegs from The Clash’s heyday, vibrant: crisp and clear and nearly lifelike in fidelity. You can feel a little bit of what it must have been like to have been there amid the enthusiastic crowd. I’ve foolishly talked myself out of seeing a lot of concerts over the years for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, but I’ll always be grateful that I managed to catch Strummer and the lads in New York City in the anxious fall of 2001. It was a fine show, but maybe this one is arguably a little better, with no weak spots, a tight and vibrant set of solo and Clash material.
It must be admitted that Strummer’s solo material with his crack team of Mescaleros doesn’t necessarily match up to the eminence of The Clash, and that’s ok! It’s inevitable to hold a great artist’s later work up against their brilliant past. At the same time, no one can deny that the Mescaleros had their moments — this version of “Johnny Appleseed” (maybe Strummer’s greatest solo tune) has a little more grit than the original one, which adds a little extra sonic texture. I confess that I still don’t really know what “Bindee Baghee” is all about — the lyrics come out in an exuberant rush — but this fun live version makes me think that it doesn’t really matter. The tone and rhythm shift in “Coma Girl” (a standout on the otherwise mediocre Streetcore) helps to stoke its surging, uplifting chorus.
Strummer’s vocals really held up throughout, which is rather miraculous considering how much wear and tear he put into howling out those raucous, perceptive lyrics year after grueling year. He’s clearly having a ball that night, in fine form: cracking jokes and proudly announcing his bandmates. He shouts out Mick Jones, McCartney to his Lennon back in the Clash days, who is at the show and had recently become father to a little girl named Stella.
The Clash material hadn’t lost any of its vibrancy, either: that screaming intro riff of “I Fought The Law and The Law Won” still makes the hairs on my neck stand up. “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is one of the Clash’s most perspicacious songs: it thinks deeply and ironically about issues related to race, representation, and opportunism, none of which have diminished at bit in terms of relevance over the years. Neither, for that matter, is the deceptively upbeat Sandanista! tune “Police On My Back,” which was a live staple for a reason. And if you’re not instantly tossing up your hands and nodding along to the anthemic “Rudie Can’t Fail” I don’t know what to tell you.
When Strummer calls up Mick Jones to join the lads onstage, it may or may not have been an improvised moment, and it’s totally inspired. Just the idea of bearing witness to even a partial Clash reunion is history. They start off with a somewhat meandering version of “Bankrobber” that stretches out the reggae beat to a slower, more laid-back groove which gives members of the Mescaleros a chance to jam on their instruments for almost ten minutes.
Then they all snap to attention and tear into a searing version of “White Riot” which doesn’t feel the least bit dated, with Strummer improvising the question “are we going backwards/ or are we going forwards?” Good question, that. The very early, very brief tune goes by in no time, which leads into a perfectly timed “London’s Burning,” another early cut, a feisty number about modern ennui, and then it’s good night and good luck to all.
Which brings us to the final, deeply sad reason why this concert is significant. Maybe Jones and Strummer and their former comrades Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were on the path to finally healing whatever acrimony still lingered. We could have possibly had the delightful proposition of a Clash reunion. Given the palpable warmth of the tunes they played on this night, it sure sounds like a distinct possibility. Now we’ll never know.
The next month, on December 22, Strummer came home from a walk, sat down on the couch, and promptly died of a heart attack. Apparently, he’d lived while having an undiagnosed heart ailment that, according to what I heard, meant that he could have died at any moment within his fifty years of life. Whether he knew about this existential fact or not, he certainly packed in a lot of living. Thankfully, as this record proves, he never failed to give his all, even to his last.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in the American Interest, the Baffler, the Guardian, the Millions, the New Yorker, the Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans