Wire boosts the wattage with scorching show


June 27, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Harsh. Brutal. Unrelenting.

Plenty of rock bands aspire to the sort of unrestrained ferocity that Wire delivered onstage at the Double Door on Wednesday (the first of a two-night stand in Chicago), and few deliver. But what was even more inspiring about the hourlong set was where the performance fit in the legendary art-punks' long career.

Guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, guitarist Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Gotobed originally came together in London during the first flowering of the British punk movement in the mid-'70s. More than a quarter century later, the quartet has self-released its most intense album, and the material from "Send" grew even more powerful in live performance.

The first incarnation of the band produced three brilliant studio albums (1977's "Pink Flag," 1978's "Chairs Missing" and 1980's "154"), which influenced dozens of bands that followed, from R.E.M. to Chicago's Big Black and from Elastica to Fischerspooner.

Running from 1986 to 1991, the second incarnation basically took one song from "Pink Flag" (the punk anthem "12XU") and extended it into the arena of electronic music and techno, with mixed results.

When Wire re-formed for a third time several years ago, it once again turned to "Pink Flag" for the inspirational blueprint. But this time, the group focused on the most searing and starkly minimalist songs from that album ("Strange," "Surgeon's Girl," "106 Beats That" and the title track, all of which were performed during the encore Wednesday), and it upped the wattage even more.

The set proper consisted entirely of this pummeling new material from "Send." And if, as the musicians say, the primary goal of Wire Mach III is to prove that "a bunch of old geezers" (ages 49 to 57) can provide a smarter and more visceral sonic experience than most of today's punk or industrial rock bands, they succeeded admirably.

Newman screamed like a man possessed on songs such as "In the Art of Stopping" and "Nice Streets Above," while Gilbert unleashed scorching shards of dissonant guitar noise. Always a riveting presence onstage, Lewis held down a churning bottom and shouted the occasional backing vocal as he glowered at fans with the demented look of an ax murderer.

Meanwhile, Gotobed--who for a brief and ill-advised moment during Wire Mach II was replaced by an electronic groove box--proved himself once again to be a human drum machine of unparalleled energy and sonority, playing absurdly fast 32nd-note rhythms with unwavering forcefulness.

All of this was delivered with a sound mix that was one of the most punishing I've ever heard in a small club. (The band gleefully reported that at one recent show in England, someone approached their sound technician screaming, "You are a psychopath!")

In an era where so many bands (including quite a few who claim to be "punk") eagerly compromise every aspect of their music--from relying on computers to perfect performances they aren't capable of delivering, to carefully crafting images that appeal to the correct marketing demographics--it was invigorating to see four grizzled old legends with every right to rest on their laurels burning so brightly in the here and now.

Sure, it would be nice if the ringing in my ears would subside. But a little pain is nothing compared to the rush provided by the Wire experience circa 2003.