Before he died in 2020, guitarist Andy Gill undertook several tours of the United States with a Gang of Four lineup that included no other original members. Since 2012, that version of the band appeared several times in DC, performing songs from two newly recorded albums as well as legacy Gang of Four selections.
With Gill’s passing, the other original members have reunited to tour behind a remastered box set, Gang of Four: 77-81, released last year by Matador Records. Original frontman Jon King and company recently burned through the Black Cat in a scorching show that gave powerful new life to the band’s post-punk classics first recorded in that period.
While Gill’s Gang of Temps often visited DC as an opening act, no one would mistake King and his crew for anything other than a headliner when they fired up their guitars at Black Cat on March 9. Jon King is an energetic and mesmerizing frontman, whipping himself and the crowd into a frenzy. With his chiseled looks and white hair, Jon might strike you as an aging British film star, but once he opens his mouth, he transformed into a spitfire performer of the highest caliber.
At Black Cat, Gang of Four opened with “Return the Gift” from 1979’s Entertainment!, the debut album the band would favor throughout the night. Immediately, drummer Hugo Burnham grabbed the attention of the very nearly sold-out room with his concentrated rhythmic punches. Burnham’s beats set the pace for King, who alternated between seducing the microphone and gyrating across the stage as if battered by the sound waves produced by his bandmates.
Gang of Four kept digging into Entertainment! with “Not Great Men,” a criticism of the lack of class consciousness in our history books. As with this song, many of Gang of Four’s cultural criticisms were and remain cloaked in a clever lyrcism that proves easy to remember but biting nonetheless. Jon delivered these lines proudly and with the air of a scholar who indeed has no time for “the books at home.”
Stream Entertainment! by Gang of Four on Spotify:
Another formidable distinction of the Gang of Four was the incredible melodies of each of the songs. So not only do we have striking lyrics delivered by the hypnotic Mr. King, but we also have irresistible riffs generated by dynamic new guitarist David Pajo, ably stepping up to fill the shoes of the late Andy Gill, and bassist Sara Lee. My understanding is that Entertainment! bassist Dave Allen remains with the band in some capacity but that Songs of the Free-era bassist Ms. Lee, first with the band from 1982-84, is now the face of the bass. Well, that bass was in good hands at the Black Cat last week, as Sara Lee rumbled away methodically on her bass with a studiousness that complemented and even elevated the music.
Each of the Gang of Four’s songs could inspire a volume of thought-provoking prose in reaction to them, but there were few numbers as arresting as “Anthrax,” which appeared in the middle of the set. Sara Lee and David Pajo opened the song with a pleasing wave of feedback before Jon entered the stage to sing about love as “something he doesn’t want to catch” — like anthrax. While an altogether Gang of Four tune for sure, it reached its pinnacle when Jon lent instrumentals to the spectacle in the form of a baseball bat that he began tapping on a microwave oven, which was delivered to center stage. Jon beat the bat in time, creating an interesting metallic echo, and eventually increased the force of his blows to the point where he smashed the machine. The crowd roared its approval.
But have you truly seen Jon perform if you haven’t seen seminal career-defining songs “I Parade Myself” and “At Home He’s a Tourist” live? With these songs, Jon danced from side to side, scurrying across the stage in a crablike fashion, as he spat the words with deliberate emphasis. Gang of Four closed the main set with the very on-message “To Hell with Poverty.”
After such a banner performance, Gang of Four of course returned for the requisite encore, delighting the audience with more Entertainment! in the form of “I Found that Essence Rare” and “Damaged Goods,” the anthemic kiss-off song that perhaps serves as Gang of Four’s most irresistible number.
And speaking of irresistible, Parklife was pleased to hear the alluring voice of DoLette McDonald in the harmonies! DoLette joined Gang of Four as a backing singer for this tour, and her pleasing pipes were in full evidence in selections like “I Love a Man in Uniform.” DoLette famously has backed The Police, Sting solo, Talking Heads, and Gang of Four, as well as many others, and her presence lent authenticity and authority to the proceedings.
This masterful Gang of Four lineup is a touring juggernaut, ready to overwhelm your body and mind with outstanding musicianship and thrilling stage presence. The quartet remain in North America for another 10 days! If there is any justice in the world, they will return again soon, but absolutely make it a top priority to catch them when you can.
Oh, by the way, DC funk band Exotiq Int’l opened the show! Here are some photos of Exotic Int’l performing at Black Cat on March 9, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Jason Nicholson.
AND here are some photos of Gang of Four performing at Black Cat on March 9, 2022. (All photos again copyright and courtesy of Jason Nicholson.)