Concert review and set list: Mission of Burma (with the Conformists) makes the impossible possible at the Firebird, Wednesday, April 4
It could have happened in any dimly-lit bar or club over the past 33 years. Mission of Burma, the iconic post-punk power trio from Boston, could have played any number of venues that have come and gone in St. Louis, but they didn’t. In that sense, their show at the Firebird last night was indeed historic.
An anxious yet subdued crowd dressed in dark colors filled the venue to see a band that was long on many insiders’ bucket lists. Mission of Burma — featuring guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott with help from Bob Weston on sound and tape loops — exhibited a professional demeanor from which many younger bands could learn. There was little banter from the stage throughout their 120-minute set bursting with songs than spanned their career. Though each member is firmly in their 50s, there was not an ounce of pure energy left at home. This is no phoned in oldies act. The band, who took a 19-year hiatus to reform nearly 10 years ago, is just as relevant now as they were over 30 years ago with plenty of creativity left for their later years.
I found it interesting, in this age of D.I.Y. promotion, that Mission of Burma sold no merch at the show. Yet, if you weren’t in the know about the band and its influence by now there was not going to be any easy introduction. That’s not the way punk rock works, my friends. Near the end of the set Miller advised the audience, “If you buy records we’ll have a new one in July.” He continued in a wry tone, “We’ve tried to pace ourselves — five albums in 35 years.”
During the show the set list bounced from new songs from the yet to be released “Unsound” to tracks from their initial period as a band from 1979-1983 like “Mica” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” In between the group mixed in highlights from its later period after reuniting for the 2004 album, “ONoffON,” and added others from “The Obliterati” and “The Sound the Speed the Light.” The group efficiently moved through songs in a timely fashion without fuss or fanfare.
Due to his issues with tinnitus over the years, Miller had his Marshall amplifier placed at the front edge of the stage rather than parked behind him to the side of the drums. This exacerbated the decibel level in the room further and left the vocals from all three members a bit hard to hear. With his long hair it was hard to tell if Miller had any of his trademark ear protection in place. With my ear plugs firmly in place, I stood in the back of the room near Weston, who manned the sound board, trying to imagine what the wail coming from Miller’s rig must have sounded like to the fans up front.
With a sense of history and not contrived irony, the band ended their main set with a one-two punch of their first single “Max Ernst” and “Academy Fight Song.” The latter had the crowd singing the lyrics back at Miller loudly over the din resonating from the stage. After the song Conley thanked the crowd for coming — “This was a lot of fun” –and the band headed for the dressing room.
After a short break, the band retook the stage for a three-song encore. They led off with “1, 2, 3 Partyy!” from their 2009 album “The Sound the Speed the Light” and then went back for two more classics from the 1981 EP “Signals, Calls, and Marches.” First, a tight, driving version of “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” that again had the audience moving and singing along loudly. As a finale, they turned to “This is Not a Photograph.” Whether or not this was a statement towards a keepsake of the band’s first show in St. Louis is irrelevant; it was a perfect closer for the evening.
It’s not often that a local band can perfectly match the vibe of an evening, but local underground stalwarts, the Conformists, did just that. The band name, a tongue-in-cheek misnomer to their overly angular rock sound, contains moments of punk rock mixed with silence, false starts and stops, and strange time signatures that keep you firmly on your toes. Though the sound may seem disjointed, the Conformists know exactly where each other are during their off-kilter tunes. A friend who had never seen the band live asked me if their set was supposed to sound like that; I confirmed and advised they were playing tight, and that this was all part of their master plan of performance art — even if many listeners might not grasp the concept.
Mission of Burma set list:
Let Yourself Go
Semi-Pseudo Sorta Plan
Sectionals in Mourning
That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate
Academy Fight Song
That’s When I Reach for My Revolver
This Is Not A Photograph