Legendary Mission of Burma rocks on


November 24, 2002


What becomes a legend most? In rock 'n' roll, the legendary bands that regroup decades after their prime invariably fare best when they eschew nostalgic posing in favor of straightforward power, and when they were ahead of their time in the first place.

This was certainly the case with the revered Boston trio Mission of Burma, which played its first show in Chicago in 20 years Friday before a packed house at Metro.

With a handful of influential releases in the early '80s, Burma was one of the missing links between the artier vanguard of the original punk explosion (Wire, Pere Ubu, the Buzzcocks) and the alternative explosion of the mid-'90s (echoes of its innovative sound could be heard in bands ranging from the Pixies to Nirvana, and Moby famously covered the band's best-known song, "That's When I Reach for My Revolver").

Original members Roger Miller (guitar and vocals), Clint Connelly (bass and vocals) and Peter Prescott (drums and vocals) first reunited last year, and they've played only a handful of shows since, with Chicagoan Robert Weston replacing the band's original sonic guru, Martin Swope, on sound mixing and tape loops.

In that time, the group has looked forward as well as back. During two 10-song sets Friday, it offered an impressive batch of strong new songs, as well as performing nearly all of the tunes that it was most famous for in its original heyday ("Revolver," of course, as well as "Academy Fight Song," "This Is Not A Photograph," "Fame and Fortune," "Trem Two" and "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate").

The hallmarks of Burma's sound were always the busy, fractured, herky-jerk rhythms (think Keith Moon reinvented as a punk minimalist), the amazingly effective harmony vocals, and the interplay between Connelly's ultra-melodic bass and Miller's vast array of tortured industrial guitar shrieks, squeals and drones (think of Pete Townshend covering Karlheinz Stockhausen).

The latter reference isn't as pretentious as you might think: Steeped in the classical avant garde, Miller brought sophisticated concepts of dissonance and odd tonalities to the band's hard-core punk drive (which mainly came from Prescott) and indelibly strong melodies (which mainly came from Connelly, the band's secret weapon in the "pop" department).

All of those elements were still in place and still interacted magically, and the musicians have lost none of their enthusiasm for this special formula. Though Prescott played behind a Plexiglas shield and Miller wore industrial-strength headphones to guard his ears (he suffers from tinnitus, which is the reason why the group originally disbanded), the now 40-something rockers hurled themselves about the stage with wild abandon, clearly drawing energy from these timeless songs, and thoroughly enjoying playing them for an appreciative audience that thought it would never have the opportunity to hear this material live again.

"Where do dreams go wrong?" Connelly asked in the haunting chorus of the last song in the group's second set, before it returned for two well-deserved encores.

One of the cornerstone bands of '80s indie-rock, Mission of Burma never achieved the huge success won by many of the bands that it inspired. But the group's dream of intelligent, crushingly powerful and marvelously inventive rock lives on, and we can only hope that its future is as bright as its storied past.