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Published: 2005/08/05
by Jesse Jarnow

Sun Ra Arkestra & The MC5, Central Park Summerstage, NYC, 7/30

NYC ROLL-TOP: Summerstage Is Not Burning

In the '60s, the Sun Ra Arkestra and the MC5 shared equally revolutionary, if not necessarily compatible, views about society. Buddies with the White Panthers and experimental poet John Sinclair, the proto-punk Motor City 5 preached a program of "rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets." The free jazz big-bandleader Sun Ra — aka Sunny Blount — simply advocated packing up and returning to Saturn, where he claimed to be from. They shared bills back in the proverbial day, though, and — musically — weren't actually too far apart from one another, each applying joyous chaos to different forms of dance music, the MC5 to blues, the Arkestra to swing. And the MC5 even covered Ra's "Starship" on their 1968 debut, Kick out the Jams.

Their paths diverged in the mid-'70s, as the MC5 disintegrated into addictions, jail sentences, and eventual deaths, while the Arkestra played steadily onwards. After Sun Ra himself returned to Saturn (or, popularly, "died") in 1992, the Arkestra's core members carried on, led by 80something saxophonist Marshall Allen, and continue to occupy the same Philadelphia house they've owned for decades. The remaining three members of the MC5, meanwhile, reunited in 2003 at, of all things, the behest of Levis jeans, and have been reuniting periodically since with various guest stars.

On a surprisingly pleasant July afternoon, the Sun Ra Arkestra and the MC5 — brought together by guest curator DJ Spooky — shared a stage for the first time in at least three decades.

The Arkestra — in full 21-piece force — played first, introduced reverently by Spooky who, draped in the Arkestra's customary Egyptian/sci-fi garb, joined the band on turntables. Wisely, the Arkestra focused on their departed bandleader's more danceable material. As always, they were infinitely loose and intuitively tight. Each of Ra's sweet pop tunes was mixed with a liberal dash of noise. With seven percussionists, a parcel of brass, and DJ Spooky scratching unobtrusively, Allen had a broad palette to draw from when looking to apply the Arkestra's signature frizz. The members all switched to percussion while a male dancer emerged, contorting with wild sensuality. The reedmen picked up their horns again while Allen conducted, and their set wound to a close. The Arkestra's music was dignified and brilliant, their sense of mission unquestionable.

"We consider it a great honor to be playing this music in New York City," said guitarist Wayne Kramer, the band's de facto leader following the deaths of frontman Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. For the part, he dressed all in white.

"You're getting paid!" somebody shouted. And so they were. "They" included Kramer, bassist Michael Davis, drummer Dennis Thompson, and a host of guests. With Izzy Stradlin's non-union replacement in Guns 'n' Roses, Gilby Clarke, sitting in for Smith, and a new pair of horns, the MC5 effectively turned their incendiary anthems into staid blues-rock nostalgia, saxophones squonking like forgotten Springsteen singles.

The set's bright spots were provided by Kramer's silvery free guitar peels (though not his showboating), and guest vocalist Mark Arm, of Mudhoney, whose grunge whine was every bit as snotty as it was when he snarled songs like "Touch Me, I'm Sick," in the late '80s. Unfortunately, Arm was soon replaced by Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators (most recently known for successfully suing Canadian electronic musician Dan Snaith for calling himself "Manitoba," despite the fact that Handsome Dick has never released any music under that name) (and forgetting that the Canadian providence probably had first dibs). Dressed in a sparkly blue shirt, a bandanna, and a Steve Austin goatee, Manitoba looked more like a pro wrestler than a punk singer, likewise acting and sounding like one.

Though there was no fucking in the streets, a middle-aged man ricocheted about the front rows screaming "MOTHERFUCKER!" in between songs and creepily attempting to get in on a group grope occurring between two fairly wasted teenage couples. The band rocked on, through numbers like "Ramblin' Rose" and "Tonight." Soon Kramer and Manitoba worked the crowd into an unsuccessful three-part sing-along (just "whoa whoa"s and stuff, no content) that Kramer explained was about "unity." They asked the crowd if they knew what time it was. And, in a moment that was partially ridiculous because it was so unrehearsed, and partially ridiculous because both Kramer and Manitoba wanted it so badly to be dramatic, they sort of stumbled while screaming "KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKER!" Which they then did, in a manner of speaking.

The Arkestra — or its duly appointed freakonauts, anyway — rejoined the MC5 for a sloppy encore take of "Spaceship," which jammed for a bit too long before landing in Ra's "Outer Spaceways, Inc." while the crowd slipped back into the frisclating Central Park dusklight.

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