Music Review | MC5 and Sun Ra Arkestra

1960's Musical Anarchists Still Kicking Out the Jams

New York Times
Published: August 1, 2005

The MC5 and the Sun Ra Arkestra knew exactly what they meant by freedom when they shared a bill and performed together at Central Park Summerstage on Saturday afternoon. Freedom was about taking a known structure - a blues, a vamp, a swing tune - and overloading it with noise and wild impulses.

When the two bands first played together, in the 1960's, they represented a shared utopian anarchy: MC5 mingled revolution, lust and the urge to rock, while the Arkestra tossed together African-inspired drumming, carnival pageantry, big-band arrangements and visions of outer space as a better place. The MC5 included a Sun Ra tune, "Starship," on their first album, "Kick Out the Jams." What both groups played, then and now, was also good-time music, from a time when protest and pleasure merged.

The MC5, who formed in Detroit in 1966, used garage-rock, soul and blues-rock as the makings of rowdy psychedelic stomps. They denounced the war in Vietnam; they got primal about sex. In the ferment of the late 60's, the distorted momentum of the music was greeted as an insurrectionary force in songs like "Motor City Is Burning." It was also a foundation for metal and punk-rock to come.

Two of the five original band members - the singer Rob Tyner and the guitarist Fred Smith - died in the 1990's, and Michael Davis (bass), Wayne Kramer (guitar) and Dennis Thompson (drums) haven't tried to recreate the original band. Instead, they call themselves DKT/MC5 and work with various singers. At Summerstage they had Mark Arm from Mudhoney, Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators and Lisa Kekaula from Basement Jaxx, each offering a version of the old Detroit rebel howl. Gilbey Clarke, from Guns N' Roses, added a second guitar. There was also a two-man horn section.

Heard now, the MC5's music showed its blues and soul roots. But it also reached psychedelic heights, particularly when Mr. Kramer took off on lead-guitar solos that stretched blues lines and Chuck Berry licks toward high-speed runs and distortion, while the rhythm section kicked harder and harder.

The Sun Ra Arkestra, now led by the saxophonist Marshall Allen, is a gleefully overstuffed big band. Its members perform in glittering costumes and hats that are anything but uniform. Multiple percussionists pile onto swing beats, cluttering them with hints of Africa and Brazil. While members of the saxophone or brass sections play arranged passages, other instruments squeal and bark and cackle. Some parts are harmonious, others proudly out of tune. And behind vocals that declare "This planet is not my home" is not alienation, but a jovial tenacity.

The MC5 and the Arkestra got together at the end, for "Starship" and "Outer Spaceways Incorporated," and they redoubled each other's squall, spinning off into free improvisations. Yesterday's protests still made a joyful noise.


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