Great American Music Hall
November 19, 2001
Review by Eliot Van Buskirk
Since November 19th I've been carrying around a ticket stub dated that day for the Fall show at the Great American Hall, which reads "FALL FEATURING: MARK E. SMITH." The reason I'm carrying around the stub is that the Fall have been my favorite band for just about nine years, and until that ticket was used, I'd never seen them live. After being plagued by pictures of the Fall's last trip to the states, I was prepared for frontman (and winner of the NME Godlike Genius Award) Mark E. Smith to ruin the show with drunkenness or hostility, or even by getting lost or beaten by bandmates in San Francisco before the show even happened. My trepidation was doubled by the fact that the show was billed as "The Fall featuring Mark E. Smith. The band, I had learned, was all new -- replacing the Julia Nagle-led crew which I liked so much on the band's 35th (yes, as in half of 70) album, the Unutterable (which combines electr! onica with guitars in a unique and frightening way, but that's not what this review is about).
After what seemed like a very long, drunken, tense-with-anticipation waiting period, the moment is upon me. The band takes the stage, and immediately launches into a big-sounding version of The Joke. Mark bounds onto the stage and starts bellowing into the mic with intensity: "The Joke! Five years in a PC camp, the Joke!" "Ahh," I think, "they're not going to totally suck." This latest incarnation of the Fall includes three hard-working lads named Ben, Spencer, and Jim, who know their shit something fierce. This is an incredibly tight band that is gaining momentum at the expense of every amateurish musician ever to mistakenly step onto the stage. Over the rest of the night, the band proved to be equally loud, on-time, and professional. This time, it looks like Mark has selected a fairly workmanlike bunch. He's been quoted as saying, "me and your granny on bongoes is the Fall," and he's right -- but personally, I prefer this version of the fall, with it's note-for-note pr! ecision and huge guitar sound.
Mr. Smith himself was in fine form, prowling around the stage snarling lyrics into the mic and messing around with his bandmates' amps (but not too much - I have to stress that his behavior was fairly clean on this tour). He seemed to be on something besides straight-up "joie de vivre," but that is hardly an aberration. This man and his friends like to do drugs, and have done since the early days of the band in 1977. Whatever, it's rock and roll. What matters is the music, which was strong. The band was a juggernaut with a mad genius at the helm. Picture a massive battleship with wheels rolling over small towns with a mad banshee snarling and hurning invective down at those foolish enough to stand in the way. Mark E. Smith is an incredibly self-assured performer who exudes more charisma standing still than most lead singers do hopping around and climbing on things.
The biggest stormer of the evening was "I Am Damo Suzuki," MES' tribute to one of his favorite bands, Can. One of the first lyrics, "and the drums....come in...and the drums they come in FAST" sent shivers down my spine as the drummer started bashing out the catchier-than-strep beat. In general, the set got faster, louder, and generally "more" towards the end. I think it was during the cover "Mr. Pharmacist" that the energy really started picking up. "Two Librans" off of the Unutterable was also pretty powerful--both because the massive guitar chord hook style of these songs suits the new band pretty well.
So now for the $64 million question: are the Fall over? Even worse, were they over a long time ago? The answer, to anyone who is still paying attention, is resoundingly no. This band is 24 years old, has released 36 full-length albums, and can fill the GAMH with people going nuts. Out of their last four releases, two have been stunning, covering entirely new ground between harsh loud guitars and slick electronica. When you consider that the Fall are competing simultaneously with the legends of bands like Joy Division and the Gang of Four as well as every young band kicking around today, their achievement becomes that much more laudable. They are a monument, but unlike other monuments, they continue to create. As Smith once barked, "Ours is not to look back, ours is to continue the crap!" Indeed.
Check out Virgil Porter's photos from this show on his website www.rawk.org