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Come Ride With US

The concert pairing of the 21st century editions of the Sun Ra Arkestra and the MC5 might at first glance strike some observers as a retro kind of gig. After all, the two groups do have a history of performing together that goes back to the late 1960s. Of course, I'm speaking of outside observers here; surely no one who was present at Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles when the DKT/MC5 and Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen touched down would question the currency of the music they heard that night. Also performing were Barbez, a younger group from New York City that played an individualized style of progressive rock that borrowed liberally from a variety of styles including jazz, cabaret and performance art.

Barbez was the first band of the evening. Their set was politely received by the audience, though I, for one, didn't especially enjoy them. I'm not saying they were bad--some of what they were doing was quite good, the supple Theremin work of Pamelia Kurstin being particularly fascinating--but on the whole I found them too self-consciously artsy. The number one thing for me with a band that is working, however loosely, in a rock milieu is that they should Rock--at least show me that they know how to do it, and then move on if they so choose. But Barbez never really proved it and so their efforts sounded the more pretentious for it.

In the middle came the Sun Ra Arkestra. Though the passings a decade ago of keyboardist Sun Ra and the great tenor man John Gilmore still reverberate in the contemporary version of the Arkestra--it seems oddly appropriate that both chairs are currently empty--the most striking thing about the band is how much continuity there is in its make-up. There's Marshall Allen, of course, the 81 year-old reedman and band director, but he is only one of many band members who have been with the ensemble for decades: bassist John Ore, vocalist Art Jenkins, Luquman Ali on drums, trombonist Tyrone Hill, saxophonists Charles Davis and Danny Thompson all number among the many others. In fact, by my count only three of the group's eighteen members never played under the late maestro Ra.

The Sun Ra Arkestra plays the gamut of jazz; a set from them will likely include the blues, Dixieland, bebop, swing, African rhythms and the most out playing you couldn't otherwise imagine--sometimes all at once. The late Sun Ra claimed to come from Saturn--true, there are those who say that Sun Ra was born in Alabama, but then there are those who think Superman is a fellow named Clark Kent that grew up in Smallville. In any event, the band includes the music of Outer Space alongside Earthbound styles, and this music may sound harsh to ears that are not ready for it. The group opened up this time with some very wild free jazz that immediately challenged the pre-conceptions of the audience, and then worked their way in and out of the jazz tradition and their own extensive songbook. The group dialoged on "Angels And Demons At Play," vamped on and performed a perfect segue between "The Blue Set" and "I'm Gonna Unmask The Batman," and generally grooved their way through an hour. Their relentlessly catchy song for the millennium, with its chorus "Come ride with us/On cosmic dust/Millennium, the rising star" was one highlight, as was Marshall Allen's alto playing on a ballad that may or may not have had its basis in "Mood Indigo," the saxophonist's off-register soloing just beginning at a point where even Ornette Coleman might have chosen to leave off. To close their set, they left the stage for the time being chanting their traditional closer, "We Travel The Spaceways."

Following an intermission, the DKT/MC5 took the stage. The DKT part of their name represents the three surviving members of the original group--bassist Michael Davis, guitarist Wayne Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson--and acknowledges the absence of the late Fred "Sonic" Smith on guitar and vocalist Rob Tyner. It also seems to allow for the Protean nature of the modern version of the band, which was augmented on some tunes by a fine, Detroit-native horn section of trombonist Phil Ranelin, saxophonist Buzzy Jones and Dr. Charles Moore on trumpet. Gilby Clarke, formerly of Guns 'n' Roses, plays second guitar in this incarnation of the group, while the vocal duties were split on this occasion between Kramer, Clarke and a trio of guest vocalists. "Handsome" Dick Manitoba of the 1970s New York punk rock group the Dictators charged the group on such classics as "Call Me Animal" and their signature tune "Kick Out The Jams," while Lisa Kekaula of the BellRays and Basement Jaxx electrified the crowd on numbers including the 5's "Human Being Lawnmower" and Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul;" if former Afghan Whig vocalist Greg Dulli's turn on "High School" was less memorable than the above, it has more to do with the outstanding work of Manitoba and Kekaula than any deficiency on the part of Dulli.

As it should be, the best was saved for last. The DKT/MC5 closed with "Starship," a song written by the group thirty-eight years ago around a poem by Sun Ra. As they began the piece in their driving, psychedelic, proto-punk/metal style, the members of the Sun Ra Arkestra filed in behind them until the group onstage was something like an MC22 or so. The moment was incredible, the theater filled with a sound that was exhilarating and liberating and joyfully cacophonous. This turned into a medley of Sun Ra favorites, interpolating "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" and a reprise of "We Travel The Spaceways" with the deservedly legendary rock guitarist Wayne Kramer taking the lead vocal.

Though I'm sure some audience members were taken back to the halcyon days of their youth, the performances of the Sun Ra Arkestra and the DKT/MC5 at UCLA amounted to quite a bit more than a nostalgia trip. Actually, as far ahead of their time as the Arkestra and MC5 have always been, it seems fair to say that jazz and rock aficionados are still catching up to them. As the music ended and midnight drew near on the night of the Harvest Moon, it seemed clear that Outer Spaceways, Inc. had enjoyed another successful night of recruiting.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: MC5 & The Sun Ra Arkestra
  • Concert Date: 9/17/2005
  • Subtitle: The MC5 and the Sun Ra Arkestra Invade UCLA
  • Venue: Royce Hall, UCLA
  • City State Country: Westwood, CA
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