After a nineteen-year break, post-punk pioneers Mission of Burma will kick off a short stint of reunion shows at New York's Irving Plaza on Saturday night. Last night, the band performed at Boston's cozy supper club 608 under the name "Myanmar" (the name the nation of Burma took on in 1989), and that clue was more than enough to pack the place with the hometown faithful.
Other than an informal gathering with drummer Peter Prescott's Peer Group in an opening stint for Wire in 2000, the band had not played since their farewell tour in 1983, an exit hastened by guitarist Roger Miller's severe tinnitus, a buzzing in the ear caused by exposure to loud noise. On Tuesday night, in anticipation, MIT's radio station, WMBR, had broadcast a live show taped in the school's cafeteria in 1982 and news coverage had run the gamut from local remembrances to a caricature in The New Yorker.
"I'm flabbergasted -- that's the word," said bassist Clint Conley, the author of Burma's two most widely recognized compositions, "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" and "Academy Fight Song," following the band's hour-plus "open rehearsal." "Everyone calls this 'inexplicable,' which is perfect, but if there's a second word it's 'flabbergasted.'"
Taking the stage, the band looked healthy and well preserved. A plexiglass baffle between drummer Prescott and Miller, along with heavy duty protective headphones, seemed to give the guitarist a steadfast sense of confidence as the band launched into the rhythm-heavy dissonance of "Secrets." The capacity crowd stood seemingly awestruck as the band moved gracefully into a jumping version of "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate." With a smile, Miller addressed the crowd.
"I never went to my high school reunion," he said, eyes sweeping over a crowd that included Mighty, Mighty Bosstone Dickey Barrett, former Weezer bassist Mikey Welsh and producer Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Morphine, the Pixies). "I guess I'm making up for it now."
What the band also seemed intent on making up for was lost time and its no-holds barred yet convincingly tight set was impressive. The new Miller tune "Wounded World" proved that the band's standing with such one-time peers as Gang of Four has not diminished, yet the ferocious snarl meets smart melody of "Dirt" and "Dumbells" proved the band's original work timeless.
"There are some songs that sound very 1979 to me but I wouldn't say too many in our set," Conley said. "They sound like something you might hear now, and I'm very proud of that. I think we wrote some sturdy songs."
The percolating groove of "Max Ernst," with its inherent melodicism dissolving into a cacophony of divergent tape loops, proved this theory. If "Ernst" was the song that set the band's set on fire, the immediate segue into "Academy Fight Song" poured on the fuel. The band's deftly confident handling of the song brought smiles to the band's faces before "Fame and Fortune" proved Mission of Burma have not lost an innate ability to maneuver through hairpin turns into hair-raising sonics. The band left the stage grinning, a loop of feedback still ringing above the assembled.
As Mission of Burma made their way back onstage for an encore, they immediately picked up where "Fame and Fortune" had left off. Stepping into the pounding "Battle of Johnny Burma," they built the song to a peak before launching into "Revolver." With Conley's exquisite bass line augmented perfectly by Miller's chiming guitar and Prescott's intuitive percussion, the song sounded as though the band had secretly been playing it every weekend since 1984.
"It's a thrill playing with those guys, absolutely a thrill, and it was from the first rehearsal," Conley said with a warm smile following the set. "When Peter and I were rehearsing alone, it was lacking some magic, but once Roger came onboard it's been just great."
Few in attendance at 608 for Myanmar would disagree. "Surreal" was the word shared backstage by Thalia Zedek, one-time frontwoman of Boston's Come, and Mark Kates, former head of the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal imprint and Burma's de facto manager for this stint of dates. Mission of Burma's two New York dates (January 12th and 13th) this weekend are sold out and ticket demand in Boston has been so great that in addition to scheduled shows at the city's Avalon Ballroom (January 18th) and Paradise (January 19th), a second matinee performance, dubbed "Brunch With Burma," has been added at the Paradise. The band will conclude the reunion with April shows at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K.