Not long ago, Fall frontman Mark E. Smith was awarded the Godlike Genius Award for Services to Music by the British music weekly New Musical Express. So what does a musical genius look like? Judging from Smith's appearance when he finally took the stage on the second night of the Fall's current eight-night U.S. tour (their first in four years) musical geniuses have freshly blackened eyes, sallow faces with mouths permanently sucking cigarettes and may or may not be drunk. In short, Smith looked like shite. But music isn't a beauty contest, and like Iggy Pop at the height of his drugged-out period, or any other artist who's been willing to push himself almost over the edge and report back to us what the view is like, Smith has earned the right to look like crap.
In the States to promote their latest of more than 20 albums, Levitate (which is to be released here April 7 on Artful records), the Fall, as is their wont, stuck mainly to new material. Just pleased to be seeing Smith in the flesh, the rowdy crowd of die-hard fans didn't seem to mind. It helps, too, that the group's current lineup (according to one Internet "bandmemberography" this is the 23rd incarnation of the Fall since late 1976) is one of its strongest.
Affixing a ready-made tag to any of the Fall's music is nearly impossible, but a pattern did emerge. Longtime bassist Steve Hanley (he first joined the band in 1979) and drummer Karl Burns held down a shambling, danceable beat while guitarist Tommy Crooks cranked out dirty power chord riffs. Texture was provided by keyboard player/programmer Julia Nagle, who threw in a jungle breakbeat on a new, appropriately-titled number called "Jungle Rock" and elsewhere added synth washes. On top of it all, the inimitable Smith muttered his usual caustic tales of dread in his trademark slurred rap.
Seeing them live it's easy to see why the Fall have remained one of the most consistently vital acts in rock in the last twenty-five years. Sporadic commercial success has meant that Smith can concentrate on making experimental music, and his ear for new sounds (he was an early proponent of today's electronic music) plus his uniquely intenseengagement with the world ensure that his art will always have an audience. Whatever he does, it's interesting. How many other rock musicians can you say that about?
Famous for berating both his band and his audience while playing live, this show went offwithout a hitch (the previous night's audience, however, was treated to an impromptu10-minute break just a few songs into the set). The absence of bizarre, embarassing orawkward moments made sure the focus stayed on the music, which Mark E. Smith will nodoubt be concocting for 22 more genius-filled years.